Local Elections 2023
home counties Insight
It was predicted that the Tories would have a bad night in the Home Counties, but their walloping managed to surpass expectations. Councils with robust majorities like East Herts, Mid Sussex and Hertsmere all found their vote had collapsed.
But to make things complicated, a large swathe of the region lacks a clear winner. This means many council chambers will resemble an amateur version of the West Wing in coming days and weeks as coalition deals and power shares are established. The balance of political proportionality on planning committees make cross-Party appeal pivotal.
Ashford Independents and Greens have taken control of Ashford Borough Council under a joint minority administration after two Conservative councillors broke the whip in not supporting the group’s choice for Leader, ending the Tories’ 20-year run of controlling the Council. Cllr Noel Ovenden (Ashford Independents) has been elected as Leader, but the AGM was adjourned before a Cabinet could be appointed around him. The Independents will need to work with the Labour Group to maintain control in what is likely to be a fragile administration.
Although the Conservatives bucked the trend to get the largest number of seats in Slough, they were short of an outright majority. As such, a cooperation agreement has been established with the Liberal Democrats to provide a robust majority, giving the Council stability as it navigates through a turbulent financial period. The duration of the agreement is set to last a minimum of two municipal years and will be contingent on the delivery of both parties’ core manifesto commitments, which includes: no new 10% Council Tax rise for 2024/25, redrawing the list of proposed assets for sale and tackling air quality in Slough.
Folkestone & Hythe
The Conservatives lost control of the Council on 4th May, with a new Green Leader now in place in the form of Cllr Jim Martin. Cllr Martin is also responsible for Planning Policy, owing to him being a chartered surveyor. This will doubtless spell the end of the controversial council project Princes Parade which he once described as “one of the most difficult and complex sites I’ve ever looked at” and “beyond the development capabilities of the council.”
After Cherwell’s first AGM adjourned without a Leader being successfully elected, the 23rd May meeting convened purely to sort Council control saw the Conservatives’ keeping control of the authority as a minority administration, with Cllr Barry Wood staying on as Leader. The “Progressive Alliance” of Greens, Labour and Lib Dems that should probably have taken power has descended into blaming each other.
It’s change at the top in Swale following the Council’s AGM earlier this month, as former leader Cllr Mike Baldock (Swale Independents) was not returned as Leader of the Council. Cllr Tim Gibson (Labour) who was first elected in Swale in 2019 is now the new Leader of the Council with Cllr Baldock serving as his Deputy. This is due to Labour taking four seats from the Conservatives at May’s elections. Perhaps as a conciliation, Cllr Baldock is now Chair of the Planning Committee. Overall, the composition of the new Committee comprises six Labour Councillors, four Conservative, four from the Swale Independents Alliance, two Liberal Democrats and one Green. This complex politics necessitates cross party engagement to de-risk applications.
Labour and the Liberal Democrats have at long last agreed a governing coalition for Welwyn Hatfield, which sees the Conservatives out of control for the first time in twenty years. Lib Dem Cllr Paul Zukowskyj will lead the Council, and, in what can be seen as a statement of intent, Cllr Zukowskyj holds the portfolio for Climate Change. The Development Management Committee is to be made up of 13 members – six Conservative, three Labour, and four Liberal Democrat councillors. The Chair is to be Lib Dem Cllr Jean-Paul Skoczylas. Again, although the Conservatives have lost their grip on the overall Council, their prominence on the planning committee means they cannot be overlooked.
Windsor & Maidenhead
A new Liberal Democrat-led cabinet has been appointed, led by new leader Simon Werner. As promised by Cllr Werner during the election campaign, the new cabinet includes two independent councillors, despite the Lib Dems holding an overall majority. Independent Councillor Geoff Hill is the new Cabinet Member for Highways and Transport, while Independent Councillor Lynne Jones is the new Deputy Leader of the Council and responsible for Finance. The new Lib Dem administration also wants to address their promises of better development control and has appointed a working group, made up of three Lib Dem councillors who are contract experts in their professional lives, to review existing development agreements as well as future schemes.
In East Herts the Greens have formed a coalition with the Liberal Democrats. This week Cllr Ben Crystall was elected Leader, interestingly Cllr Crystall has a PHD in solar energy and helped found Hertford Energy Now, a not-for-profit, community-owned, renewable energy co-operative. It looks like Labour are feeling a little left out with their party leader, Cllr Carolyn Redfern, stating that Labour will “not hesitate to hold the new administration to account when necessary. We are concerned that both the Green Party and Liberal Democrats did not publish a clear set of promises for these elections.”.
Hertsmere’s AGM was ripe in political friction. Leader of the Labour Group Cllr Newmark will now lead the Council and has formed a coalition with the Liberal Democrats. He announced that his Deputy Leader would be Cllr Richards (Liberal Democrat) with Cllr Matthews (Liberal Democrat) being the Member responsible for Housing. Cllr Oakley (Labour) holds the Planning and Infrastructure Portfolio as well as being responsible for delivering the Local Plan. As Leader, Cllr Newmark said his main priorities are tackling the climate emergency, ensuring sustainability on the council and being “resident-led not developer-led”.
Tonbridge & Malling
This Kent council just about managed to retain a Tory administration, as Cllr Matt Boughton is re-elected Leader by the Chairman’s casting vote.
Coalitions of chaos?
Hertsmere, Welwyn Hatfield, East Hertfordshire, Mid Sussex, Wealden and Runnymede are just a few of the Home Counties authorities amid coalition discussions. What this means in practice is more uncertainty over the direction of policy, likely no clear direction on local plan progression and the need to build consensus across the Council.
There were decisive wins in some parts of the Home Counties. Thanet, Gravesham, Dover and Medway were the big wins for Labour, where it will be interesting to see if the national appetite for housebuilding transcends to Town Halls. For the Liberal Democrats, the snatching of Dacorum and Windsor & Maidenheadwill doubtless enthuse the party about the likelihood of them taking future parliamentary seats, and will also likely entail a change in spatial strategy in these authority.
Silver lining Slough
A rare silver lining for the Tories was Slough, where the Conservatives ousted Labour after running a local campaign on the mismanagement of the Council’s budget. Labour had effectively declared council bankruptcy in 2021, hiking their council tax 10% this year.
The Conservatives also had success in the Bedford mayoral election, managing to oust stalwart Lib Dem “Mayor Dave” with a campaign that had opposition to the East West Rail route and the Local Plan at its heart. Expect big change in Bedford’s policy direction and planning dynamic.
Insight provided by: