Local Elections 2021

6 May 2021 is a day of considerable significance to local and regional political dynamics

The elections on 6th May 2021 bring together the pandemic postponed polling that had been due in May 2020 and those already scheduled for 2021, creating a day of considerable significance to local and regional political dynamics across much of the UK.

Up for grabs are 5,000 seats across 145 English councils, thirteen directly elected Mayors, 129 Scottish Parliament seats, 60 Senedd seats, 25 London Assembly members and 39 police and crime commissioners.

Regional Analysis

Some say that we do things differently in this part of the world and cliché or not that is certainly true of the 2021 local and mayoral elections.
 
For while the story nationally is being told in the context of a single parliamentary by-election win and what that means for our politics at Westminster, the results from local council and mayoral contests can start to paint a different picture.
 
Here in the North West, it is still possible to travel from Liverpool along the M62 and pass through Labour council after Labour council all the way until the Lancashire / Yorkshire border. Yes, many of the councils along the way have been Labour strongholds for generations, particularly on Merseyside and yes, Labour did see some losses in these councils on Thursday.  But the same journey also takes you through several parliamentary constituencies won by the Conservatives in 2019, which gave the Tories hope of continuing their advances beyond the ‘red wall’ in the region.
 
Nonetheless, apart from Pendle in Lancashire and Bolton in Greater Manchester, the Conservatives did not make enough gains to make a difference to the electoral landscape across most of the region and went backwards in some boroughs, such as Trafford.

So what is going on?

Answer: devolution.
 
All four mayoral elections in the North West were held by the incumbent party, with significant increases in the share of the vote for Andy Burnham in Greater Manchester, Steve Rotheram in Liverpool City Region and Paul Dennett in Salford.  In Liverpool, Labour’s Joanne Anderson has made history to become the first black woman to lead a major British city, winning 59% of the votes cast.
 
Gains for the Conservative party, meanwhile, came in parts of the region still wrestling with how to secure greater devolved powers from Whitehall.
 
Speaking to some party activists before polling day in Greater Manchester a ‘Burnham Bounce’ was being referred to, with previously non-Labour voters switching to the party for the Mayoral contest and also voting Labour at a local level.
 
Devolution provides a platform for the incumbent to change people’s lives in a way that very few elected politicians are able to.  Whether its council houses in Salford, bus regulation in Greater Manchester or ultrafast digital infrastructure across Liverpool City Region, decisions taken by metro and city mayors are visible and easy to assess by voters.  In an election year when both local and mayoral elections are happening at the same time, this is likely to have helped shore-up Labour’s vote.

But it’s not all rosy for Labour

The competing story from this year’s election results across the region must be the rise of the Green party, which has secured its first councillors on a slew of councils across the region.  Gains in Wirral put the party in a strong position to influence the forthcoming Local Plan on the peninsular and with wins in Knowsley (where the party is now the official opposition), St Helens, Manchester, Stockport, and Halton, the party now has a toehold from which to expand.
 
Elsewhere, Rossendale and West Lancashire have slipped into No Overall Control.  In Greater Manchester, the Lib Dems are now the largest political party in Stockport and in with a shot of running the council.
 
Nevertheless, the political map across the North West remains strikingly red today compared with the rest of the country. For built environment professionals this offers an element of stability in places where Local Plans are expected to move forward over the next twelve months.
 
But with the rise of Green and hyper-local independent councillors, the debate about how and where places should grow, just got tougher.

It was the advance of the Conservative Party in the North East of England that set the tone for much of the country, after Jill Mortimer won at the Hartlepool by-election.
 
But more important for the region’s built environment is the success of Tees Valley Mayor Ben Houchen. His success in securing funding, inward investment and the relocation of parts of the Treasury to the Tees Valley is the foundation upon which the Conservatives’ successes in 2021 have been built.
 
His landslide victory, taking over 72% of all votes cast in once Labour Party strongholds across Darlington, Hartlepool, Middlesbrough, Redcar & Cleveland and Stockton-on-Tees, set the scene for further Conservative gains at local council level, which has begun to change the colour of the political map across the North East of England.
 
In Hartlepool, the Conservatives won 13 of the 36 seats that were contested following a boundary review in the borough, gaining nine seats. The Tories are expected to once again govern in coalition with independent councillors, who secured 10 seats.  A coalition between the two groups is highly likely and would provide a strong ruling majority for the administration.
 
Across County Durham Labour lost 21 seats, leaving the party with 53 of the 126 seats available – 11 short of a majority. It is the first time that Labour has lost control of Durham County Council in a century, as the Conservatives gained an extra 14 seats to become the second largest group on the council.  A partnership between Labour and either some independents or the Liberal Democrats is the most likely scenario to form the next administration, but with no history of cross-party collaboration, negotiations between now and the annual county meeting could make it tricky for Labour to secure a route to having a majority in the council chamber.
 
Further north in Northumberland the Conservatives managed to sneak across the finishing line to take overall control of the County Council, after one seat was decided by drawing lots.  The party now has a majority of one in the council chamber after a turbulent six months, with Leader Glen Sanderson now able to begin refocusing the authority on his priorities, following the resignation of Peter Jackson in September 2020.
 
In contrast, across Tyneside the Labour Party held onto Newcastle City Council¸ North Tyneside, Gateshead and South Tyneside with healthy majorities.  There were some losses by Labour across Tyneside with the Greens winning two more seats in South Tyneside and the Conservatives winning their first seat.  Elsewhere in North Tyneside was comfortably re-elected as North Tyneside Mayor with 53.4% of the vote.  The former teacher has been Mayor since 2013.

With the shape of local government up in the air across North Yorkshire whilst Government determines how best to deliver new unitary authorities across the county, the 2021 local elections focussed on metropolitan councils in West and South Yorkshire, as well as Kingston upon Hull.
 
Against the national backdrop of dramatic advances for the Conservatives, West and South Yorkshire remain fertile ground for Labour, who continue to control eight of the ten local authorities which were contested on 6th May and won the inaugural contest to become the West Yorkshire Mayor.
 
But the story of the night from Yorkshire and the Humber has to be Labour’s loss of Sheffield City Council to No Overall Control, following strong gains by both the Greens and Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives winning their first seat on the council for two decades. This included the loss of Council Leader Bob Johnson, who had only been in post for five months.  A referendum has also been held in Sheffield about the city council’s system of governance, with voters favouring a move to a committee system. This change in council structure combined with no party having overall control means that the city council is in a state of flux, although new Labour group leader, Terry Fox, is reported to be trying to reach agreement with both the Greens and Liberal Democrats about some sort of partnership to take the council forward after the AGM on 19 May.
 
The biggest swing to the Conservatives took place in Rotheram which saw Labour lose 12 seats and the Tories gain 20 seats to become the official opposition, after not previously having a presence on the council.
 
Across West Yorkshire, in Bradford, Calderdale and Kirklees Labour manged to defend its position to either maintain its majority or continue to be the largest party.  In Leeds newly appointed Council Leader James Lewis was comfortably re-elected, with the Labour group maintaining their healthy majority in city hall.  The victory has been somewhat spoiled by the resignation of a backbench councillor, citing ‘intimidation’ and calling for Leeds to follow Sheffield’s example and move to a committee system of governance.
 
It was a similar picture in Barnsley, where Labour retained its large majority, in Doncaster, where Labour’s Ros Jones was re-elected as Mayor with a 10,000 majority and in Hull where Labour continue have a majority, but will be without long-serving council leader Stephen Brady, who is stepping down from the role after 10 years.

Andy Street’s re-election as Mayor of the West Midlands on an increased majority was the culmination of a dramatic change in the colour of the political map in the region from red to blue.  Council after council across the West Midlands has either switched to the Conservatives or become further entrenched in results that build upon the foundations laid during 2019 general election.
 
From Amber Valley in Derbyshire to Nuneaton & Bedworth in Warwickshire, from Worcester to Cannock Chase and from Derby to Dudley and Walsall in the Black Country, the Conservative Party is in the ascendancy.
 
At county level across the region, the Conservatives now control all county councils, including Shropshire, Derbyshire, Staffordshire, Worcestershire and Warwickshire, often with increased majorities.
 
The only bright spots from Labour on a dismal night were traditional party strongholds in Coventry, Sandwell and Wolverhampton, where Labour managed to maintain healthy majorities.

The East Midlands saw fewer contests at district council level than other parts of England, and where there were contests the results were also less dramatic.
 
In Lincolnshire it was a story of ‘as you were’ with no councils changing control. There were mixed fortunes for the Conservatives who added eight seats from opposition parties in North East Lincolnshire but lost ground to the Liberal Democrats and Independent candidates on Lincolnshire County Council.  The City of Lincoln Council was held by Labour, with a loss of two seats but not enough to seriously dent the party’s majority.
 
Elsewhere in the region at district level, the Conservatives held Ruby and won both elections to the new unitary authorities of North Northamptonshire and West Northamptonshire, despite the party being at the helm of the former county council, which led to the local government reorganisation in the county.
 
At county level, the Conservatives took overall control at Nottinghamshire County Council for the first time in 12 years, with the party gaining six seats. Former council leader and Labour group leader, Alan Rhodes lost his seat, meaning that both the Conservative and Labour groups will have new leaders in place soon. The Tories have already selected Mansfield MP, Ben Bradley as their new leader and he will combine both roles in Westminster and County Hall.
 
And in Leicestershire, the Conservatives added six seats to their already dominant political grouping, increasing their grip on the council for the sixth successive time. Labour’s group leader, Dr Terri Eynon lost her seat to the Tories in Coalville North.

Last week’s “Super Thursday” did not disappoint, giving electoral surprises almost everywhere…except London.
 
In the Capital, Sadiq Khan cruised to victory, albeit the Tories did better than anyone thought they might and have gained a seat on the London Assembly at the expense of Labour.
 
However, things get more interesting when you look closely at some of the results and consider the impact on next year’s London borough elections. BECG will be releasing a detailed report on that when the specific ward results are released in the coming weeks, but here are the headlines.
 
In Brent and Harrow Shaun Bailey beat Sadiq. Although this is unlikely to impact Labour dominated Brent Council in May 2022, the story in Harrow could be different. Within recent history the Conservatives controlled Harrow Council, and the combination of boundary changes, an issue-ridden Labour administration and a mobilised Conservative voter base could put the Borough back in play.
 
In Ealing and Hillingdon Shaun Bailey performed well. This could suggest that the Tory vote is holding up well in Hillingdon, making it less likely that Labour will be able to capitalise on boundary changes and take control next May.
 
On the other hand, in Ealing, Labour look to have been punished for their controversial Low Traffic Neighbourhoods, with key council by-elections indicating that support is returning to former Conservative strongholds. Although this is unlikely to have any great impact on the overall council composition next year, it seems to have been enough to spell the end for long-time leader, Julian Bell, who narrowly lost a leadership vote to Cllr Peter Mason. BECG recently led a webinar discussing the politics and role of Low Traffic Neighbourhoods, which you can see here.
 
In Barnet and Camden, on the face of it the Conservatives did worse on the assembly than in 2016. However, with two Barnet by-elections returning stellar results for the Tories (including gaining an additional seat from Labour), the Conservatives are putting themselves in the best position for what will be an extremely difficult election next year.
 
The results in Merton and Wandsworth could be a sign of things to come. Labour significantly increased their majority over the Conservatives. However, until we see ward breakdowns, it’s unclear whether Labour gained in ‘safe’ Merton, or highly marginal Wandsworth, which will almost certainly be at the very top of Labour’s hit list next year.
 
There could also be signs of structural damage in south west London’s ‘yellow wall’. In Sutton, the pro-Brexit Conservative vote turned out; if they do so again, the Lib Dems stand a good chance of losing control.
 
In Kingston, although the Lib Dems held onto their seat in the Chessington South by-election, the Conservatives were biting at their heels, and may well have taken the seat if it were not for Independent candidates splitting the vote. This will likely be enough to reinvigorate the former Conservative leadership in Kingston for a feisty campaign.
 
Despite fairly predictable election results in Haringey and Lambeth– not one to be out done, both have change at the top. Haringey leader Cllr Joe Ejiofor was ousted by Labour rival Cllr Peray Ahmet and Lambeth Leader, Jack Hopkins, has resigned.
 
The final, and less talked about elections were the referendums in Tower Hamlets and Newham on whether to keep the mayoralties.
 
In Tower Hamlets, over 78% voted in favour of the Mayoral system. When considering Labour campaigned against it and former disgraced Tower Hamlets First Mayor, Lutfur Rahman, was in the ‘for’ camp, there will be some sleepless nights for Labour as they consider another divisive and difficult battle for power in East London.
 
In Newham, voters decided to retain the Mayoral system by a considerably closer margin, 56% to 44%, perhaps emphasising the hunger that London voters have for directly electing their own leaders. This could well be the future for Croydon who will have a referendum on whether to introduce a Mayoralty in October.
 
As further data is released on a ward level from these elections, BECG will be compiling a report looking at the likely results in 2022 and what this means for the built environment in London.

In Oxfordshire and Cambridgeshire, results did not follow the national picture of Conservative gains. Both County Councils are under no overall control, and the Cambridgeshire & Peterborough Combined Authority also changed hands. The political outlook in the region looks set to become far more colourful moving forward.

 

At Oxfordshire County Council, the Council remains under no overall control with the local elections having narrowed the gap between the major parties, resulting in just a one seat difference between the Conservatives, the largest party, and the Liberal Democrats, the main opposition. Leader of the County Council, Ian Hudspeth, was a major Conservative casualty of the elections.

 

Talks are now said to be ongoing between the Libs Dems, Labour and the Greens with a view to forming a new coalition, which would plummet the Conservatives into opposition for the first time in the authority’s history and potentially see Lib Dem Group Leader, Richard Webb, emerge as the authority’s new Leader at the Council’s AGM on 18th May.

 

The Conservatives’ grip on the Council could be weakened still further if a legal challenge mounted by Labour to contest the result of the Banbury Ruscote division is successful, with the County Council having already confirmed an ‘administrative error’ in the result for this seat.

 

The Conservative woes in the region also impacted on Cambridgeshire County Council, where an eight-seat reduction in their numbers has left the Conservatives three seats short of a majority, and the County Council in a position of no overall control.

 

The future of the authority currently looks uncertain, and a collation between the Lib Dems, Labour and a number of Independent councillors may result in the emergence of a new administration, headed up by a new Leader, potentially bringing Steve Count’s tenure at the head of the Council to an end.

 

Another bad result for the Conservatives came in the closely fought contest for the role of Mayor of Cambridgeshire and Peterborough, where the Labour candidate, Nik Johnson, defeated the incumbent Mayor James Palmer in a shock result that bucked the national trend.

 

The Conservative Mayor actually won the initial count but fell short of the 50% vote share required for an outright win. He was subsequently defeated after the second count revealed his Labour counterpart has secured 51% of the vote. The new Labour Mayor has already spoken about his desire to rebrand the region as ‘Greater Cambridgeshire’, focus on the delivery of affordable and social housing, and to scrap James Palmer’s £100k homes initiative.

 

At a local level across Oxfordshire, political control was retained by the majority party at Cherwell District Council, Oxford City Council and West Oxfordshire District Council, resulting in only minor changes within each of these authorities.

 

Cherwell District Council saw the Conservatives retaining control and losing just one seat to the Liberal Democrats. The picture was the same for the Conservatives at West Oxfordshire District Council where they retained control, despite losing three seats. Labour maintained control of Oxford City Council, despite suffering a three-seat loss.

 

In Cambridge, local elections took place for Cambridge City Council and Peterborough Council, with no change in leadership at either authority.

 

At Cambridge City Council, Labour retained their majority, gaining one seat. Meanwhile the Liberal Democrats lost three seats, reducing their number of seats on the Council to 12.

 

Meanwhile, at Peterborough Council, there was no change in leadership with the Council remaining under no overall control, despite the largest party, the Conservatives, gaining one seat and taking their total number of seats to 29.

 

Last week also saw the first full elections take place for Buckinghamshire Council, a unitary authority formed in April 2020 to replace Buckinghamshire County Council and the district councils of Aylesbury Vale, Chiltern, South Bucks and Wycombe.

 

These elections saw the Conservatives win a huge majority and retain control of the Council with 113 of the 147 seats up for grabs. A leadership contest is now expected to ensue, with the current Leader, Martin Tett, looking to ward off competition from others within his own party to remain in post as the head of the Council. The Leadership contest, and other key cabinet and committee appointments, will be determined at the Council’s AGM on 26th May.

Across Kent, Essex and Suffolk, the Conservatives retained strong control, particularly at county level, despite losing some seats on each of the County Councils.

The elections saw the Conservative party retain control in Kent County Council, albeit with a reduced majority following the loss of five seats. Among the remaining parties on the council things have changed however, with the Lib Dems losing one seat and Labour gaining two, making Labour the second largest party on the Council, and therefore the leading opposition.

 

Interestingly, the leader of the Labour party at Kent County Council, Cllr Dara Farrell, lost his seat, while the Leader of the Council, Cllr Roger Gough, retained his seat and will soon appoint his new Cabinet. Also of note here, the election of Elham Valley was cancelled at the last minute owing to the death of a candidate. This seat was previously held by the Conservatives and it is not yet known when the election will be due to take place.

 

Despite maintaining strong control over Essex County Council, the Conservatives did lose four seats which were largely picked up by Independents. One of these lost seats was in Thaxted, where Conservative incumbent and Cabinet Member for the Environment Simon Walsh lost his seat to residents’ group Residents for Uttlesford (R4U). R4U also gained another seat in Saffron Walden from the Conservatives. Following these changes, and that Council Leader David Finch decided to step down for these elections, there will be notable changes to the Cabinet. The Council’s AGM will be held on 25th May, where we will be able to confirm the new Leader, Cabinet and committee compositions.

 

The Suffolk County Council elections largely reflected the national picture, with the Conservatives making three gains to further improve their control on the council, winning key seats such as Gainsborough, which Liz Harsant took from Labour. However, Cabinet Member for Housing and Economic Development Nick Gowerly (Con) lost his seat to Keith Scraff (Lib Dem), who also defeated him in the district elections in 2019.

 

Additionally, former Conservative leader Mark Bee was also ousted by the Green Party in Beccles. Meanwhile the Lib Dem and Independents both lost seats, with Labour conceding six seats, which were largely taken by the Green Party and saw them triple their seat share to nine and become the largest opposition party. The Council’s AGM will be held on the 27th May where the new leader and likely Cabinet reshuffle will be confirmed.

 

At a local level in Kent, the Conservatives gained new control in Maidstone, however lost their majority in Tunbridge Wells, which will now be run under no overall control.

 

In Maidstone, the Conservative gains have resulted in them taking political control of the Council, following a period of no overall control prior to these elections. The Conservatives gained five seats, taking their total to 29, while the second largest party on the Council, the Liberal Democrats, lost four.

 

Conversely, in Tunbridge Wells, the opposite was the case, with their Conservatives losing political control of the Council, which will now be run under no overall control. The Conservatives lost six seats in Tunbridge Wells, of which four went to the Lib Dems. These results saw the Conservatives seats on the Council fall to 24, whilst the Lib Dems, their nearest competitors, have 13.

 

At district level in Suffolk, only Babergh District Council held a by-election for Great Conard ward, in which the former district councillor Simon Barrett (who lost his seat in 2019), defended the seat for the Conservatives. As such, there was no substantial change to the political composition of the council. Whilst there have been no significant changes from these elections, the Council AGM on 25th May will confirm any cabinet and committee changes.

Across the Central South region, the Conservatives remain dominant, especially within County Councils. They also captured the only Labour-run council in the region, taking majority control at Southampton City Council. The Conservatives also became the largest party on Portsmouth City Council but for now it is unclear who will lead the authority, which remains in no overall control.
 
Regarding the county authorities, at Surrey County Council the Conservatives retained their majority but lost 10 seats, leaving them with 47 of the 81 councillors. Of the 10 seats lost, the Liberal Democrats took half of them. Whilst the Conservative majority has been cut, it should still be large enough for the ruling party to win votes in the Council Chamber without too much difficulty.
 
It was a similar story at Hampshire County Council. The Conservatives won 56 seats, one more than they already had, whilst their nearest rivals, the Liberal Democrats, went from 19 members to 17. Meanwhile, Labour trebled its seats, but this sounds less impressive when considering the party only started with one councillor and now has three.
 
At West Sussex County Council, the Conservatives retained control but lost two seats. Labour saw gains of five and the Liberal Democrats increased their share by two seats and a Green member won in Chichester South, whilst the Independents lost three seats. With former Leader, Louise Goldsmith, having already stepped down, a new Leader is set to be appointed later this month.
 
Regarding East Sussex County Council, the Conservatives retained control but lost three seats, and the party’s majority has been cut to just four, compared to 10 before the election. The Liberal Democrats stayed on 11 seats and are the largest opposition group.
 
Whilst there was no significant change amongst the county councils there was drama across the water at Isle of Wight Council. The Conservatives remained the largest party but fell two seats short of a majority, and lost their leader, Dave Stewart. It is now unclear who will lead the authority, and it should be noted that the other seats were taken by seven different parties. As a result, what will emerge is either likely to be a highly unstable coalition, or a hamstrung Conservative administration. Island politics looks set to be volatile for the foreseeable future.
 
Just across the Solent there is also an unclear picture in Portsmouth, where no overall control has become the norm. The Conservatives crept ahead of the Liberal Democrats with 16 seats to 15 but both are well short of a majority. Labour has seven seats but is highly unlikely to enter a coalition as there is historic ill-feeling between them and the city’s Liberal Democrats. There are also two Independent and two Progressive Portsmouth People councillors who might hold the keys to power.
 
In Southampton, the position is much simpler – Labour has lost, and the Conservatives have won. A third of the 48 council seats were contested and before the election, Labour held 30 and the Conservatives had 18. However, Labour was defending 12 seats and only retained five, which left them on 23 and the Conservatives on 25. Councillor Daniel Fitzhenry, who leads the Conservative Group, is expected to make business and commerce a priority of his administration, while less emphasis is likely to be placed on the sustainability agenda, which was a lynchpin of Labour policy in the city.
 
There was further good news for the Conservatives in Basingstoke. Boundary changes triggered all-out elections for Basingstoke and Deane Borough Council. The Conservatives went into the ballot as a minority administration but emerged with a commanding majority of 12 and will face a much smaller Labour opposition. Whilst not a unitary authority, Basingstoke and Deane is the district in Hampshire where the most housing development is planned in the coming years, and this will now be overseen by a majority Conservative administration.
 
At Bournemouth, Christchurch, and Poole Council, two by-elections were held with the Conservatives winning one, and the Christchurch Independents claiming the other. The Conservatives remain in minority control following the collapse of the Unity Alliance last autumn.
 
Further along the coast, at Brighton and Hove City Council, there were also two by-elections. The Conservatives won in Patcham, but remain the third-largest party, whilst the Green Party edged clearer of Labour by winning in Hollingdean & Stanmer, which is a seat Labour won in 2019. The Greens remain in minority control, three seats ahead of the Labour Party.

Our thinking

BECG’s network of offices throughout the UK gives us the local grounding and regional expertise to analyse these elections’ impact of any of your communications. If you’d like to find out more about how the results impact your business then please get in touch with one of our regional specialists: