Cllr Roy Whitehead is the Leader of Chelmsford Council.
We start with the advantage of holding 52 of the 57 seats in the City of Chelmsford, with the others held by the Liberal Democrats, our traditional opponents. In normal circumstances, we would expect to retain a good proportion of these, although the number was artificially high in 2015 as it was also the day of the General Election and Conservative voters were out in force.
Over the past 16 years Chelmsford has become a city and was recently voted ‘The best place in which to live in Eastern England’ by the Sunday Times and we know that residents are pleased with the City Council.
However, the Brexit Effect is starting to take its toll and the activities of all Members of Parliament has given local politicians a bad name, indicating that apathy is our biggest enemy. Our opponents realise this and, as always happens with the Lib Dems, they are not constructive but simply critical of everything, particularly highways, potholes, buses, children’s services, schools and the NHS. None of these is the responsibility of the City Council, but, of course, the Lib Dems use ‘The Council’ to try to persuade residents that we are really to blame.
Our campaign is targeted to carry the message that Chelmsford Conservatives have a great track record on local matters and that this election is not a referendum on Brexit, the NHS or the County Council. As such our literature is resolutely ‘Local’ and positive and does not attack any other party.
Brexit is not mentioned, nor Westminster politics and we will not be featuring our three Members of Parliament in the combined Manifesto/Candidates Address which we will deliver from mid-April. We have used this format successfully for the past three elections and it is an A3 sheet, folded to A4, with ‘What we have Done’ on one side of the centre page and ‘Our Aims’ on the other. (No pledges or promises!). The front page has an overall message and the back page the pictures of the candidates and their messages.
Our new Local Plan has been through examination and, all being well, will be found sound by the summer. This makes it harder for the opposition parties to campaign on new homes in the backyard. We have two major projects – our new Sports Centre and enhanced Museum – both of which will be complete by the summer and we are using them to demonstrate our ability to replace worn out buildings left unmaintained by the previous Lib Dem Administration.
Despite lots of encouragement from CCHQ we have mostly avoided canvassing up to now to try to stop Brexit arguments on the doorstep. Where some has taken place, voters seem willing to vote Conservative, but many have indicated that abstention is their likely way forward, so we are re-doubling our efforts to get our message out that local issues are the most important.
We have familiar policies, such as no development in the Green Belt, the need to cut pollution, our excellent re-cycling record plus more infrastructure. We are building a new Garden Village and have plans for over 16,000 new homes in the period to 2036 but it is the perceived lack of infrastructure that alarms people rather than more homes being built and this is a point often made on the doorstep.
Social media has not been widely used, as we feel it is essential for opposing things but more problematical for positive messages. “New café at the Museum” is interesting but hardly going to be retained for long. “Tories waste money on new Museum” is likely to be added to the fake news list by our opponents. Our younger new candidates are keen to use social media, but it does tend to get arguments and counter-arguments going on ground prepared by the Lib Dems and others.
We have seen little of Labour and nothing of UKIP, who took many of our votes in 2015. There are a few Independents but again not that many, and we will have some Greens.
Without being complacent we are working hard to retain our seats at a time when outside events are not helping us and remain confident of success.