I conclude the local elections preview with consideration of the district councils holding contests this time. 60 of them are going to the polls. Mostly they only have a third of their seats coming up – but that still amounts to just over a thousand contests. District councils don’t spend as much as their “upper tier” big brothers – but they do have power over that key matter of planning. How many new homes will be built? What sort of homes? What will they look like? Where will they go? These matters make for unpredictable electoral outcomes. An unpopular development, even in a “safe” Conservative area, can prompt a backlash. This especially applies when Conservatives wishing to make a protest can do so by voting for an independent or a residents’ group – rather than Labour, the Lib Dems, or the Green Party, which they might find a more traumatic decision.
Councils can not adopt a simple NIMBY approach. They are obliged to accept, after a bit of to and fro, a level of “housing need” decreed by Whitehall officials. They then need to come up with a “development plan” of how the new housing will be provided to meet this increased need. If the Council fails to meet its quota then it simply has less power – a developer will be in a much stronger position to get approval on appeal. So the council can’t block all development – but is held responsible for whatever development is allowed through. Regular readers will know that I believe the answer to this conundrum is to require beautiful development which would then be more popular. Increasingly councillors are sympathetic to this point but fail to overcome the resistance of their modernist planning officers with an addiction to ugliness. Another problem is that even if a proposed development is attractive, well located, and welcomed by a majority, there will always be some opposition – if it is noisy enough then the more feeble councillors will dive for cover.
Let us consider Castle Point in Essex as an example. A third of the seats are being contested. The Conservatives are clinging on by their fingertips with 21 of the 40 seats. But there are no Labour, Lib Dem, or Green Party councillors. The main opposition comes from the Canvey Island Independent Party with 16 councillors. Its party leader says:
“During the 1950s and the 1960s Canvey Island was a lovely place to live; clean and safe. Where has all of that gone? Well it seemed to have started when we joined the mainland.”
They demand power be devolved to Canvey Island Town Council. It’s all very plucky, Passport to Pimlico stuff – which I can see many natural Conservatives would be attracted to.
This time round there also seems to be some backchat in Benfleet too – as manifested by the People`s Independent Party running candidates in those wards.
Where else might the Conservative be under threat?
Gosport has all its seats up for election. That Council has 19 Conservatives, with 14 Lib Dems – so is an obvious Lib Dem target. Another council with all the seats being contested this time is St Albans. This is already a Lib Dem council – I have written previously about how it demonstrates failings in matters of the “green belt”.
Newcastle-under-Lyme is also “all out” this year. This one is a Conservative/Labour contest. At present, there are 23 Conservatives with 18 Labour councillors. Pendle is another Labour target – but there, only a third of seats are being contested. Crawley is Labour-run with the help of an independent. So that will be another closely fought battle.
Nuneaton always prompts election night excitement. It has shifted firmly to the Conservatives in recent years so a Labour revival here would be significant.
Then we have Worthing. One thinks of it as solidly Conservative. But it’s not anymore. Its proximity to Brighton and Hove has provoked something of a political identity crisis. There are 16 Conservative councillors – with 17 for Labour. A third of the seats are up for election next month.
Unlike the other contests taking place next month, on district councils the Conservatives dominate – so have most to lose. We can look down the list and spot where the Conservatives might be vulnerable to even a modest Lib Dem or Labour revival. What is harder to predict is where groups of independents will produce an upset – but that could be the greatest threat.