‘He was a champion for Spelthorne’
Friends and political rivals unite to pay tribute to Cllr Robert Watts following his death in a fire last week
TRIBUTES have been paid to ‘hard working and loyal’ Shepperton Town councillor Robert Watts, who died in a house fire late on Sunday October 4.
Shocked friends, colleagues and opposition councillors have spoken of Cllr Watt’s dedication to the borough of Spelthorne since becoming a councillor in 2011.
Fellow ward councillor Robin Sider had been with Cllr Watts that weekend on a trip to Melun in France to mark the 25th anniversary of the twinning with Spelthorne. Cllr Sider dropped him off at his home at about 3pm on the Sunday and was shocked to hear news of the fire the following morning.
“I am devastated at this news having left him only yesterday afternoon after a weekend in France,” he said. “Cllr Watts was a great friend and colleague. He worked hard for Shepperton and will be sorely missed by those he represented.”
The Conservative councillor had lived in Spelthorne for more than 60 years, and had been the borough council leader since January 2013.
During his leadership, the local authority backed the expansion of Heathrow Airport and fought against the Shepperton eco-park plans.
Mike Brennan, chairman of Spelthorne Conservative Association, said: “I worked very closely with Robert and we got to know each other quite well.
“He was a very decent and straight-talking, good man. There were no airs and graces about him. He just said it the way it was.”
That straight-talking did, however, lead to controversy at times – most notably when Cllr Watts was criticised for saying ‘if people want to live by the river, that’s up to them’ during the floods of February last year. But Mr Brennan said Mr Watts always had the best interests of fellow residents at heart.
“He was a massive champion for Spelthorne, and the village of Shepperton,” he added. “He was a great champion of the green belt and wanted to keep the villages as focal community points in Spelthorne.”
Cllr Colin Davis said: “Despite a fairly austere face to the rest of the world, Robert was kind and compassionate and a deeply caring man who loved his Shepperton, his Spelthorne and his Surrey. He will be sorely missed.”
Cllr Richard Smith-Ainsley, councillor for Laleham and Shepperton Green, said Cllr Watts had ‘dedicated himself to residents of the borough’.
“It has been a full-time job being leader and he took it very seriously,” he said. “It’s a real loss of someone with expertise as an engineer.
“Robert’s brother died recently and they were very close, so it was quite a loss for him. But he still stayed dedicated to what he was doing.”
Cllr Maureen Attewell went to Cllr Watt’s Bruce Avenue home on the Monday morning to place some roses.
“I’m absolutely devastated,” she said. “I have known him since I moved to Shepperton 10 years ago and it’s Robert who introduced me to the local Conservative branch. He was a good friend – supportive and very loyal – and an excellent leader.”
The borough’s MP Kwasi Kwarteng added his tribute, saying: “Robert was a hardworking councillor and a quietly effective leader of the borough. His sense of duty and responsibility missed.”
Cllr Watts was well known among community groups.
Prior to becoming a councillor, he was a committee member of Shepperton Residents’ Association.
Richard Hewitt, chairman of the association, said: “Robert has always been a strong supporter of residents and the residents’ association. He was prepared to talk to anybody and was a strong friend of everybody in Shepperton.”
Sally Dick, a member of the Shepperton branch of the Spelthorne Conservatives, first met Cllr Watts at the residents’ association. She said: “He was a very decent man. I’m so shocked and stunned by his death, as a friend and a colleague. It’s particularly terrible to die in such a way.”
Spelthorne Labour party’s Robert Evans took the opportunity to pay tribute to a political adversary.
“Robert Watts was a formidable opponent and worked extremely hard for the borough,” said the Surrey county councillor. “He will be missed.”
Surrey County Council leader David Hodge spoke of his shock and sadness, offering sympathies to family, friends, colleagues and the people of Spelthorne, ‘who he served with such commitment’.
Cllr Tony Harman is now acting leader of the council.
He said: “Robert was a lovely man and he was very well respected locally in Shepperton and throughout Spelthorne. His greatest achievement was keeping things together in terms of the relationship between the staff and councillors.”
Cllr Watts’ funeral is expected to take place this week.
A book of condolences has been opened at the council offices in Knowle Green, Staines.
Councillor Robert Watts.
Bouquets left in the wake of the terrible news, including a touching tribute from residents to Cllr Watts for his sterling efforts on their behalf down the years.
Above, with Spelthorne’s Conservative MP Kwasi Kwarteng; above left, during a campaign to keep Walton Lane open; left, backing Church Road residents during a speedwatch campaign.