Our series continues on the impact of the local elections on the political parties in different regions. This week it is the turn of the South West.
There were no elections in Cornwall or Wiltshire, but these unitary authorities had all their seats contested:
- Bath & North East Somerset
- Bournemouth, Christchurch and Poole
- North Somerset
- South Gloucestershire
In Plymouth, a third of the seats were contested.
The following district councils had all their seats up for election:
- East Devon
- Forest of Dean
- Mid Devon
- North Devon
- Somerset West and Taunton
- South Hams
- South Somerset
- West Devon
Exeter had a third of its seats contested.
So what were the fortunes of the different parties?
Traditionally, the West Country has been territory where the Conservatives have battled with the Liberals. Therefore a Lib Dem revival was naturally going to hit the Conservatives in this area – and so it proved. Devon is a particularly clear example. Here the Conservatives lost 15 seats in Teignbridge to the Lib Dems who took control of the Council. North Devon is evenly split after the Lib Dems gained ten seats. There is a by-election there next month.
But what about East Devon? The Conservatives lost the council; not to the Lib Dems but to the East Devon Alliance and assorted independents. The former Conservative council leader is now an independent councillor.
The EDA says it is a “coming together of several groups campaigning to prevent inappropriate and unsustainable large-scale development in East Devon.” It complains of “shocking misuse of executive power”, “secrecy” and “the profits of developers”. These are all familiar populist Nimby themes. They pep up the campaign with moral indignation – and often have a degree of truth to them. But the real problem is not greedy developers or secretive councillors. It is that the schemes they come up with are ugly.
For instance, the plans for the Exmouth seafront look awful. If they looked good would the locals object to the scheme making money? To take another example, would there be so much opposition to 650 new homes in Axminster if they were going to be neoclassical, in sympathy with local tradition? Rather than the identikit concrete boxes which might be regarded as more likely?
Or let us consider Torridge. The Conservatives lost there, but to the independents. The Lib Dems made no gains at all. The new council leader is Cllr Anna Dart. She doesn’t seem to be particularly anti-development. On the contrary, she was supportive of some new homes in Bradworthy, an area she represents. But then those new homes (under the auspices of a Community Land Trust) are beautiful. So why would anyone object?
Turning to Dorset, the results are a bit more complicated due to reorganisation. The county council has been abolished. The Conservatives won the new unitary Dorset Council – that absorbs the district councils East Dorset, North Dorset, Purbeck, Weymouth and Portland, and West Dorset. However, the majority was slim with the Lib Dems making progress. In Bournemouth, Christchurch and Poole, the other new unitary council, there is no overall control. The Lib Dems made gains, but so did the independents. The kingmakers would seem to be the eight councillors from the Christchurch Independents. Their key message is that they want nothing to do with people from Bournemouth or Poole…
Somerset had some very bad results. Sedgemoor is the only district still under Conservative control. I was particularly sorry to see the loss of Bath and North East Somerset. This has been an innovative council – not least in reforming adult social care to improve the service while reducing costs.
Gloucestershire saw the Conservatives hold in Tewkesbury, but lose the Cotswolds to the Lib Dems.
As noted above, Somerset was the bright spot for the Lib Dems. South Somerset was one the few councils they already controlled before this month. They increased their majority. But in North Somerset, gains were made by independents – the new council leader is an independent although the Lib Dems are joining the administration.
Dorset, Devon and Gloucestershire all saw some dramatic Lib Dem gains. They did not take the Lib Dems back to the level in the 1990s. But they can argue that it was dramatic progress for one day. Also that the independents being a powerful force in parts of Devon is nothing new.
Several of the councils in this region have no Labour councillors at all. Even if Labour had done well nationally there was not much anticipation of them making great strides in the South West. Yet there are still some results which are pretty poor for them. Forest of Dean remains under no overall control. Labour lost six seats – while the Green Party gained six. Labour lost a seat in Exeter, although they still have a big majority on that council. They also held Plymouth, where they gained a seat.
Conservative councillors who lost their seats this month have been given some comfort by the narrative that the reason was not any failings on their part but anger over the failure to deliver Brexit. That would certainly seem to be the main explanation. But there is also some evidence of complacency where Conservatives had big majorities – especially when it comes to planning issues. There is a danger of councillors going off to meetings and being keen to “get through the business”. This might involve reaching a decision which leaves the planning officer happy, the architect happy, and the developer happy. The hitch then being that the voters are thoroughly unhappy with the scheme being foisted on them.
Thus, even before any disgruntlement with central Government, the conditions for rebellion are already favourable and independents prove electable. How they will get on exercising power is another matter. We often talk of “populists” as being on the right. But some of these independents seem to be populists of the soggy centre. Instead of finding a scapegoat to dodge a tricky issue, they take refuge in some morally indignant platitudes. They will claim to be in favour of “sustainability” and “inclusion” without explaining what they would actually do. They will sometimes imply, but not quite state, that the existing council administration they are seeking to overturn is corrupt. They might promise to stop the closure or downgrading of a hospital should they take over a Council – even though they don’t have the power to do so. In some places they have done so well that rather than protesting they are now exercising power – managing budgets, awarding contracts, making decisions. Tricky. They will have to agree on what they are for, not just what they are against. Some will cope better than others. But the scale of their gains is certainly salutary for the main political parties.