Even in an era when British politics seems endlessly surprising, this was an eye-opener: one of the biggest individual political donations this year has gone not to the Conservative party or to Labour but to a tiny group in Surrey with just one councillor.
The news came in the quarterly update of donations produced by the Electoral Commission. Amid a list dominated by unions and businesses handing sums to the big parties was notice of £204,888.20 going to the Hersham village society.
It is fair to say that outside the somewhat niche political circles of Elmbridge borough council, most people will not have heard of this particular party. One of a string of village-based independent groups that run Elmbridge council in coalition with the Liberal Democrats, it has for decades represented the interests of a small commuter-belt outpost best known, if at all, as the home of the punk group Sham 69, who immortalised it in their 1979 hit Hersham Boys.
The money came in the will of Richard Greenwood, a Hersham man who died last year aged 84, seemingly without any living relatives. The bequest came as a surprise even to his local party.
“I can’t even say I knew him, actually,” said Roy Green, the party’s one councillor. “He only made out his will about three days before he died, and he left big sums of money to various organisations, not just us but a local hospice and the MCC.
“He left over £1m in all. No one knew he was that rich – he lived in this little ex-council house. I think one of our committee had lived opposite him and helped him in the past. He must have decided we should benefit.”
There is only one snag: as well as being the Hersham village society’s only councillor, Green, who has represented it since 1979, is likely to be its last. “I’m up for re-election in May, and I actually don’t think we’ll even be putting anyone up for election, as most of us have just got too old to carry on,” he said. “My brain is willing, but physically it’s getting difficult. Last night I had a three-hour council meeting, sitting in my office, staring at a screen, and my back was killing me. And that was the third long meeting this week.
“On Monday, I went to the funeral of one of our members who was in his 80s, and he’d been with us for over 30 years. But we don’t have younger people coming forward.”
Luckily, the money is still being put to good use. Green said the society was “more of an amenity and social group”, although it has to register as a party because members stand for election, meaning Greenwood’s bequest was registered as a donation.
It provides volunteers to run the local community centre, which will now get a revamp, along with funds for activities such as a youth group and a Saturday night cinema club. Green described the cinema club as “mainly for older people, so they can get out at least once a week”.
The society is in the process of handing most of its unexpected windfall to other local groups, including the Brownies, a scheme to help homeless people, a charity housing former racing greyhounds, and Hersham in Bloom, which plants flowerbeds.
Up to now, Green admitted, the tiny party/community group had tried to keep its new wealth quiet so as not to be inundated with requests. It was a nice problem to have, he added. “It was a lovely sum of money, a complete surprise, I can tell you. So we’re giving donations where we can. There’s not much money going to these small organisations, it normally goes to the bigger ones.”