The overall results of the local elections were very bad for the Conservatives. But there was great variation between regions and within regions. So we are providing a series that will attempt to get a better grasp of what happened in different parts of the country. We will start with the South East. In terms of accepted bureaucratic definitions, this area covers the following local authorities which held elections.
First of all, these unitary authorities had all their seats up for election:
- Bracknell Forest
- Brighton and Hove
- West Berkshire
- Windsor and Maidenhead
These unitary councils had a third of their seats up:
- Milton Keynes
The following district councils had all their seats up for election:
- East Hampshire
- Epsom & Ewell
- Mid Sussex
- New Forest
- Reigate and Banstead
- South Oxfordshire
- Surrey Heath
- Test Valley
- Tonbridge and Malling
- Vale of White Horse
- Windsor and Maidenhead
These districts had a third of their seats contested:
- Basingstoke & Deane
- Mole Valley
- Tunbridge Wells
- West Oxfordshire
How did the different political parties fare?
This is a strong part of the country for the Conservatives. We also started from a particularly impressive position in terms of previous election results.
In Surrey, the Conservatives lost control of Tandridge, Guildford, and Waverley. In other places – notably Surrey Heath – there were heavy losses but control of the council maintained.
Apart from Brexit, the challenge for Conservatives in this area is to meet the twin demands for more homes and protecting the greenbelt. The answer to the conundrum is for new housing to be beautiful and attractive – and to identify pieces of land for development that might be within the “greenbelt” but are decidedly brown and scuzzy. Another factor might be that Conservative district councillors are suffering due to the failings of their profligate county council colleagues. A couple of years ago Surrey County Council contemplated holding a referendum on 15 per cent Council tax increase.
The Guildford results were shocking. The Conservatives lost 25 seats to end up with just nine.
In Kent, the Conservatives lost control of Shepway (which has been renamed Folkestone & Hythe). The Conservatives there are seeking to negotiate a coalition. Swale was another defeat, where independents were the biggest winners. Tunbridge Wells saw seats lost to the Lib Dems and Labour but also to the Tunbridge Wells Alliance. Their pitch was anti-development (a particularly popular message when the new developments happen to include “shiny new Council offices”). But if proposed new developments are ugly, is it any surprise that they are unpopular? Ashford saw the Conservatives keep control of the Council, but lose 13 seats. Sevenoaks provided better results – as already reported here.
Chichester in West Sussex saw the Conservative hold onto control – but lose 13 seats.
The Liberal Democrats gained Mole Valley from no overall control. They picked up seats here and there. But the news from Guildford, while disastrous for the Conservatives was also salutary for the Lib Dems. True, they won 17 council seats. But “Residents for Guildford and Villages” won 15, while the Guildford Greenbelt Group won four. It is not for me to claim any inside knowledge regarding the relations between Residents for Guildford and Villages and the Guildford Greenbelt Group. Perhaps they don’t get on. But I note that, combined, they have more councillors than the Lib Dems. Guildford returned a Lib Dem MP in 2001. The Lib Dems used to run the Council. No longer does a Conservative defeat mean a victory for the Lib Dems.
The main victory for Labour was gaining Gravesham. But how much of this was due to Tory disarray? Several Conservative councillors – including the council leader – became Independent Conservatives. Several of them stood in the elections and a couple won seats. Perhaps the Corbynista message is always unlikely to resonate in this area. Yet the Green Party made progress not only in Brighton and Hove. They also gained three seats in Reigate and Banstead, where Labour didn’t win any. Why does Mid Sussex have three Green Party councillors but no Labour ones? The explanation might be that the Conservatives have failed to show people how extremist the Green Party is.
It is easy to conclude that the Conservatives were the biggest losers. The question of who won is more complicated. Nationally the focus may have been on Brexit. That has certainly been huge. It has prompted hitherto loyal Conservatives to look around for alternatives. But it is also significant that often the alternative has proved to be anti-development independents protesting about the arrogance of planners who impose unpopular schemes on their communities. The Conservatives cannot afford to be anti-development. Sharply increasing the housing supply is an imperative. But nor can the Conservatives, of all people, be indifferent to those seeking to defend the fabric of the communities they love. The answer is for the new homes to blend in, to be sympathetic. They should be an enhancement rather than a blight. It really should not be that hard to go back to building to the standards we managed to achieve in previous centuries.
So certainly there is a message to get on and deliver a proper Brexit. But also for the Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission to produce some tangible results. There is a difference though. While councillors can’t do much about Brexit, they can ensure development is popular by requiring it to be attractive, or at least to cease the routine requirement for it to be ugly. There has been a lot of talk about “hard-working” councillors losing seats. How many are sufficiently hard-working to write their own planning policies? How many adopt the lazy (and disastrous) option of leaving it up to the planning officers?