James Heywood is a senior researcher for the Centre for Policy Studies. Before moving to London, he was an activist and candidate for Trafford Conservatives.
Ever since the Conservatives took control of the council in 2004, Trafford has been a Tory flagship in the North. The borough can boast some of the best schools in the entire country, including the popular state grammar schools fiercely defended by Sir Graham Brady, one of the local MPs. Under the very capable leadership of Sean Anstee, Trafford has had a thriving economy and its residents pay less in council tax than anywhere else in the North West. Why, then, did the Council slip from Sean’s grasp last week, with Labour becoming the largest party?
The media love to fit everything into a clear narrative, and on Thursday the story was mostly ‘Brexit’. Trafford voted Remain in 2016, the story goes, and the Conservatives therefore took a hammering there. I’m sure Brexit was an issue for some Conservative voters. But Trafford is essentially two constituencies – safe Labour Stretford and Urmston, and Graham Brady in Altrincham (with a slice of Wythenshawe and Sale East thrown in). It was Altrincham where the Remain votes were stacked up (61.4 per cent Remain), but it was in Stretford and Urmston, split roughly equally on Brexit, where we lost our key wards.
The key part of the borough was my old home patch of Davyhulme and Flixton. If we had won Davyhulme West, East, and Flixton on Thursday we would have held onto Trafford Council. These were three seats we had been clinging onto for several successive elections (Flixton by only 60 votes in 2016) and they were heavily targeted by Labour.
As John Bald mentioned in a piece for ConHome on Monday, the most prominent local issue in these wards was planning, and it is a sign of trouble to come for the Government’s ambitious housebuilding plans over the coming years. There has been huge controversy about plans to remove a local (now closed) golf course from the Green Belt, so that it can make way for hundreds of new homes.
Community groups have been organising ever since the announcement was made, and the plans have already been watered down substantially. The issue first came to my attention on one of my visits home to Manchester last year when I noticed the large green ‘Save Flixton’s Green Space’ sticker on my parents’ car window. There is genuine anger at what many see as a money-making exercise for developers at the expense of the local community, putting pressure on roads and public services.
Labour evidently identified a depressing level of Nimbyism, and weaponised it. They campaigned hard against the plans. As many local campaigners will have experienced before, Labour got themselves in with the ‘Save Flixton Green Belt’ campaign group, making sure that their MP and group leader were at as many of their events as possible, making speeches and stirring up concerns about strain on infrastructure and loss of green space.
In November the Labour Group actually staged a walkout from council over the issue. When Andy Burnham came to campaign in the area, the Labour candidates for both Flixton and Davyhulme West recorded videos with him, and the Green Belt was the topic of choice on both occasions. Within hours of the election result on Friday morning, the Labour group leader had posted on the campaign group’s Facebook page to reiterate Labour’s pledges on the housing plans, and said the same to the local newspaper.
They even managed to get Eddie Izzard on-script when he came to help out in Trafford, with him telling the local paper: “There’s a chance in Trafford that you can change things, for instance there’s building on the Green Belt and building on the William Wroe golf course, and if candidates get supported we can make a difference here. This is a place where we are targeting the Tory controlled Trafford, three seats in particular – Flixton, Davyhulme East and Davyhulme West.”
Of course, as with any local election, a whole host of issues were at play in Trafford, particularly funding cuts and the state of the roads. We also lost a formerly safe ward to the Greens in Altrincham (though it is worth noting that here too, when Green leader, Jonathan Bartley, visited he chose to focus on opposing another local housing development). But the fact that Labour smashed us in those key wards highlights an issue Ministers need to face up to if they are going to deliver on their housing promises. In principle voters support increased housing supply, but when it comes to building in their area it is ‘inappropriate’.
If leaders like Sean in Trafford are going to continue to have the courage to argue for local housebuilding, there must be a concerted effort both to assuage local concerns about infrastructure, and to make the positive case for building homes in a way that emphasises the benefits to residents. Simply talking about Greater Manchester’s housing needs isn’t going to cut it for people in Flixton who are worried about noisy building sites and blocked roads. They want to know why having more houses is a good thing for them, for local young people, for the local economy and for the community.