Cllr Paul Mercer is a councillor on Charnwood Borough Council and is the Lead Member for Housing on the Cabinet.
After 12 years of being in control of Charnwood Borough Council, the ruling Conservative group was faced with the challenge of devising innovative policy ideas in the run-up to the local elections on 2 May. Charnwood is a large borough and over the past decade the inefficiencies and unnecessary bureaucracy created in the previous 12 years, five of which were under the control of the Labour Party and the rest under no-overall control, have been largely eradicated.
On the basis that good government often depends on good opposition, the Conservatives had the added burden of not having any effective opposition from the nine-strong Labour group. For instance, Labour’s manifesto suggested it was going to commit £5 million each year on improving our council houses and flats. What it failed to understand was that Charnwood was already spending over £16 million a year from within our Housing Revenue Account budget. Labour’s commitment would therefore represent a significant cut.
Labour also announced that it was going to address the problem of rising crime by “pledging to fund” ten ‘Police Community Safety Officers’ (the correct term is ‘support’ officers) who would be “based in Charnwood”. The average annual cost of a PCSO is about £39,000 compared to £44,000 for a PC. Not only did Labour fail to explain where they were going to find this extra money but had evidently not realised that under the 2002 Police Reform Act they would be controlled by the police and not the council.
With Labour failing to put up much effective opposition in Charnwood over the past four years, most of the debates over policy have been with the administration. When, for instance, we suggested that the empty homes premium – a mechanism by which higher council tax could be charged for properties which had been empty for more than two years – it was resisted on the basis that it would not have any impact, would be unpopular and difficult to implement. The policy is now in place and it is acknowledged that, not only is it an important tool in assisting bringing empty properties back into use, but it has also resulted in a significant increase in our new homes bonus. Likewise, there was resistance to the suggestion that we should charge council tax in the first month of a property being vacated, but this was pushed through by councillors. This has generated extra revenue and hardly anyone noticed the difference.
The Charnwood Conservative Manifesto for the 2019 elections therefore offered us the possibility of not only putting forward new policies to counter Labour, but also to set in stone a number of ideas which the officers had been unhappy with and which we would have difficulty in having implemented. Our Leader made it quite clear that if we were re-elected, the manifesto would become our programme and the policies would be implemented.
At the centre of Charnwood is Loughborough which is dominated by the University. Although the University has grown in size and reputation it has expected many of its students to live off-campus which is meant that large parts of the town and now dominated by student-occupied houses and flats. This has had a significant knock-on effect with higher levels of anti-social behaviour, crime, rubbish left on streets, a decline in the quality of houses and often a level of dissatisfaction from our indigenous residents. As a consequence, many of the councillors in the town, both Conservative and Labour, realised that the only response would be to implement licensing of these houses in multiple occupation (HMOs) and possibly of all rented properties in the affected areas.
This policy is proving particularly popular amongst Conservative voters many of whom have relatively little interaction with the council other than paying their council tax and having their bins emptied.
The efficient way in which the Conservatives have managed Charnwood has made it difficult for Labour to attack which is why they have veered onto emphasising the NHS, Universal Credit, and even fracking in their attempt to gain support.
Local elections tend to be overshadowed by national politics and these have been no exception with Brexit dominating discussion on the doorstep when campaigning started. In our marginal wards in Charnwood, having these clear policies has helped candidates persuade electors that they should be voting on local issues. Although it has often been difficult, in most cases they seem to have succeeded.
In our ward, we have spoken to over 1,700 of the 4,000 electors and during the course of the campaign it was clear that feelings about Brexit were the biggest issue on the doorstep. In the early stages, about 20 per cent of Conservative voters expressed reservations. At the same time, we were coming across seasoned Labour voters who said that they were either not going to vote or might consider voting Conservative because of their concern over Jeremy Corbyn and Labour extremism.
The depth of concern over Brexit appeared to alter over the campaign. When the Prime Minister announced that our departure would be delayed and that European elections would now take place, electors soon reasoned that they had a new set of elections to vent their frustrations. After that, Brexit was hardly mentioned.
It is impossible to say what the impact will be tomorrow but the feeling of our candidates who have worked hard and spoken to a significant proportion of their electors is that the impact of Brexit can be averted. However, there also appears to be a concern – amongst Labour candidates as well – that national politics may still skew the result in a disproportionate number of seats.