Ben Crystall: East Herts’s first Green councillor on Herts CC

"These wins mean we are now the largest opposition party in Hertford and Ware, and gives us a fantastic springboard for 2023." Newly elected Cllr Ben Crystall for Hertford Bengeo speaks to Green World about green issues in the area.

Ben Crystall
Ben Crystall

Describe the current political structure of your council.

I have been elected to Hertfordshire County Council (HCC) from East Hertfordshire – the new county council make-up is 46 Conservatives (down four from the previous council), 23 Lib Dems (up from 18), seven Labour (down three), with myself as sole Green Party councillor, plus an independent councillor. The political control is based around an executive and topic panels.

What was your experience of the election campaign?

The election campaign experience is summed up in two words: hard work. We chose two target seats at HCC and two town council seats which were up for election too, chosen based on our showing in 2019, and we followed advice from Eastern region which meant we tried to dominate the literature and poster ‘space’ locally, plus there was lots of door-knocking. We also fought hard to convince other parties locally to work with us, and to some extent that succeeded.

Fortunately we also have a fantastic local group, and although we don’t have a huge number of members in East Herts, we are able to call on more than 50 residents who were keen to turn out to actively help, some aged in their 80s and 90s! This willing volunteer pool was vital as one of the target seats was very rural in nature, and the multiple rounds of literature meant that volunteers put in a huge amount of steps. They were incredible, and we topped all that off with a fantastically organised chair, Alex Daar, who kept everything perfectly on timetable.

How did it feel to win?

Winning felt amazing – we took three of our four targets, with one county council seat and two town council seats. This is an area that has been dominated by Conservatives for more than 20 years. We had a swing of 34 per cent in the county seat we won, and 28 per cent in the county seat where we came second – fantastic efforts all round. Across the district we averaged a 12 per cent swing.

These wins mean we are now the largest opposition party in Hertford and Ware, and gives us a fantastic springboard for 2023. If we can take one more seat on Hertford Town Council, for example, it will go to no overall control, so we are putting considerable pressure on the Conservative controlling group. Herts County Council has had Greens before, but that was almost a decade ago, and I’m the first from East Herts.

What are the green issues affecting your local area?

Like most places in the country, traffic is increasingly important. There are a number of specific challenges, including what must be one of the county’s worst rat runs, plus issues caused by a fast food outlet which clogs up a busy roundabout. Lack of parking, pavement parking and choked roads are also upsetting resident’s lives. Air quality issues are growing too.

We also have challenges with local chalk streams which are polluted and run dry in summer. And we face large amounts of new development which threatens existing woodland and meadow.

What do you hope to achieve in the coming years as a Green councillor?

I have been a district councillor for two years already (one of just two Greens on a council of 50) so I am used to being in a minority.

Almost immediately after becoming a County Councillor, I got in touch with the lone Independent Councillor, and we agreed to form an Independent/Green group of two! Though this doesn’t sound significant, it allows us to punch above our weight, as we are able to attend Group Leaders Meetings and ensures we have our voice heard on panels, and entitles us to an office and additional support too.

What do I hope this will achieve? I just want to make sure the Green voice is heard at as many committees as possible. I aim to continue previous work to encourage schools to increase efforts in sustainability, and have joined the newly created Environment Panel which should allow me to push the county sustainability agenda. One key strategy is to push for 20mph speed limits on all urban roads.

To what do you attribute the growing interest in Greens in your area?

Part of our success comes down to recent strong local campaigns – one against a quarry that was due to be built beside a primary school (!) and one around a large new development scheduled to come in two years or so. The quarry application was defeated by a huge community effort, and while the Green Party didn’t lead this explicitly, both of these threats have clearly galvanised local residents into appreciating potential loss of green space and threats to the environment.

Politically we are relative newcomers in East Herts and so we have worked hard to engage with residents. Being newer means we are not associated with current deadlock on many issues, and with residents feeling like they are ignored by existing parties. So our community-based campaigning style has stood us in good stead.