Case study: Tunbridge Wells
Control: No Overall Control.
Numbers: Conservatives 24, Lib Dems 13, Independents 6, Labour 5.
Change since last local elections: Conservatives -6, Lib Dems +4, Independents +1, Labour +1
All out or thirds: Thirds
Background: This local authority is in Kent and was founded in 1974. It covers Royal Tunbridge Wells, another town, Southborough, as well as some surrounding rural areas. By reputation, Tunbridge Wells encompasses Conservative values to the extent of parody. 1944 BBC radio programme, Much-Binding-in-the-Marsh, created a character called “Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells” who would write indignant letters to newspapers. E.M. Forster had earlier nurtured a similar caricature about the allegiances of the town’s residents. The reality has been a little more complicated – the Lib Dems ran the Council from 1996–1998 and it was the only district in Kent to vote Remain in the 2016 EU referendum. But the constituency has always been Conservative. It was represented for many years by Patrick Mayhew, who served as Northern Ireland Secretary – and since 2005 by Greg Clark, a cabinet minister under David Cameron and Theresa May. There would certainly be an expectation that if the Conservatives are doing well nationally, they should have little difficulty here.
Results: Although technically under No Overall Control, the Conservatives are still running the Council. There has been some speculation that the losses were due to resentment at public spending being directed to “Red Wall” constituencies in the north. There may have been a bit of this. Yet the elections the same day for the Kent County Council divisions covering Tunbridge Wells went rather better for the Conservatives. Some gardens would display two boars – one with a poster supporting Conservative candidates for the county council, another with a poster urging a vote for the Tunbridge Wells Alliance in the borough election.
The result in Capel Ward was instructive. The Lib Dems gained the seat by a huge margin. This was due to opposition to the Council’s plan for a new settlement at Tudeley with 2,100 new houses. It is at an early stage with little detail. This void of uncertainty is soon filled with emphatic pessimism. The people of Capel assume new development will mean bad development. Who can blame them? It usually does. They fear it will be ugly. That it will be poorly set out – as a giant housing estate, rather than thoughtful street patterns that engender a sense of community and calm. That it will mean worse traffic jams, more pressure on GPs surgeries and school places. That it will “go beyond anything Capel can cope with.” Thus the cry goes up: “Save Capel”. Such is the desperation – they vote for the Lib Dems.
What should the Conservative response be? One is defeatism – to blame central Government for requiring a target for new homes. Then point out that if the Council doesn’t offer a plan for this, then they would have less constraint on the developers over what got built and where. Objections could be overruled on appeal – on the grounds they were meeting an acknowledged need that would not otherwise be resolved. So the new homes have to go somewhere. A switch to a Lib Dem council or a Labour Government would be unlikely to change any of that. As it happens, the Lib Dems have backed the local plan saying that Tudeley is the best option.
No doubt it would be useful if those procedural realities were better understood. But the more inspiring approach would be to make the development at Tudeley so wonderful that it would be popular. It could be a village that, though new, was traditional. Beautiful homes of traditional material that blend in with the surroundings. It really should be financially viable for the infrastructure to be improved to more than compensate for the extra population. So that the existing residents of Capel would enjoy less congested roads, a new train station, a greater choice of good schools, less delay seeing a GP or getting a hospital appointment. Funding formulas could be tweaked to give an incentive for development. Perhaps for a year or two there could be an exemption from paying Council Tax – to compensate for the dust and noise of lorries trundling past to carry out the building works.
Not that it would be quick or easy. The new residents are not due to move until 2038. Capel is made up of a collection of hamlets. For many of them the very attraction of living there is being isolated. If Tudeley had excellent new schools with lots of places, that might make matters worse from their perspective – in terms of all the coming and going. There have already been assurances from Harry Teacher of the Hadlow Estate, the landowners, that the development will be beautiful – the response was sceptical. Even if it all works out splendidly, suspicions may not be overcome until much before then. Universal acclaim may never be achieved. But the challenge for Conservatives in Tunbridge Wells, as elsewhere, is to offer development of a high enough standard that it is welcomed by most reasonable people.