UKIP has grown as a force in local government in terms of their number of councillors. They now have about 500 of them. They hold the balance of power in several places. Yet they don’t seize the chance of power when it is presented. In Tendring the Conservatives offered UKIP a coalition – but UKIP ran a mile. There is now likely to be some sort alliance between Conservatives and independents. UKIP have shown themselves to be much more suited to complaining than to taking on responsibility.
Yet in Thanet District Council there is no escape for UKIP. They are condemned to hold office. The mathematics for them are grim – 33 UKIP councillors, 18 Conservatives, four Labour councillors and an independent. There is no way round it, UKIP have a clear overall majority. They won.
So what will they do with power? The new council leader Cllr Chris Wells has declared his ambition to make Thanet “the most boring district council”. Good luck with that.
The big local issue concerns Manston Airport.
There has been a campaign to reopen it. Last year it closed and the owners – Trevor Cartner and Chris Musgrave – want to redevelop the site. There seems to a political consensus locally for blocking such plans – by refusing planning permission – and issuing a compulsory purchase order for the site so that it can return to being an airport by alternative owners Riveroak. UKIP won the council elections by claiming to be more enthusiastic about this approach than the other parties.
Critics of Nigel Farage contrast his defeat in Thanet South, in the General Election, with UKIP’s council election success on the same day in the same place. This is taken as evidence that (like Ed Miliband with Labour) Mr Farage is a drag on his Party’s popularity rather than (as with David Cameron for the Conservatives) a boost. I’m not sure. It could be that Thanet South voters wanted a Conservative rather than a Labour Government. But they felt that UKIP running the Council would be the best bet for rescuing the Airport.
Will UKIP be able to deliver? The site’s owners will resist the CPO. But let’s suppose the CPO goes through, and Riveroak buy it, would they be able to make a go of it?
Kent County Council point out Manston has been losing money for years. The current owners claim it was losing £2.5 million annually. Perhaps contrary to those figures it could make money as an airport – and those claiming otherwise are simply keen to make even more money using the land for housing. That was the message from the Transport Select Committee.
But what if nobody can make a profit out of Manston Airport?
Do UKIP feel the airport should be subsidised? Thanet District Council’s budget is £16.8 million. They raise £8.4 million of that from their share of the Council Tax. Would UKIP hold a referendum to secure a 30 per cent hike in that portion of the Council Tax to keep a loss making airport going?
As RAF Manston the site has had a proud history. It has helped win two World Wars plus the Cold War. That doesn’t mean that it should continue as an airport if it is not viable.
On the other hand nor should the Council should give planning permission for a soulless redevelopment of modernist architecture – which is what will be on offer if the owners’ previous effort, Discovery Park, is any guide.
A new village – but with beautiful and traditional architecture, a new free school, new jobs, road improvements, etc – might be rather more popular.
Whatever view one takes this is clearly a tricky problem for Thanet District Council. That means it is now a tricky problem for UKIP.