The Conservatives suffered a near-wipe-out in last week’s council elections held in the usually true blue stockbroker belt of Surrey. Our political editor WALTER CRONXITE has crunched the numbers and found that local issues do matter
Croydon’s 70 councillors cost the borough’s residents £1.5million a year in allowances, but most councillors, Tory and Labour alike, seem to think it is perfectly fine to spend their time campaigning outside Croydon for their political parties.
The people who should be working for Croydon residents have in recent weeks been out on the doorsteps of Brighton, Crawley, Tandridge and Epsom, even though there is more than enough for them to do back home, dealing with Croydon residents’ needs.
The Croydon councillor venturing furthest – as far as we can calculate, based on virtue signalling selfies on the campaign trail – was Gareth “Blubber” Streeter.
The Conservative councillor ostensibly for Shirley North (annual council allowances: £11,463) spent his time last week travelling all the way to Torbay in Devon on behalf of the Tories.
Torbay council has some of the most quaint ward names in the country, among them Cockington with Chelston, Goodrington with Roselands, and Shiphay with the Willows.
The egregiously ambitious Streeter chose to campaign in Furzeham with Summercombe (is there a parliamentary seat selection coming up nearby, perhaps?), where thanks to his immense contribution, all three Conservatives managed to lose to independent candidates, as the Tories lost overall control of Torbay council for the first time in 12 years. Well done, Blubber!
It was a similar story in Woking, where despite the backing of no less than Gavin Barwell (£150,000 government salary) and Mario Creatura (£18,344 council allowances, plus £80,000 Downing Street salary), their old chum Jonny Cope could not win over enough public support to be electable.
Or should that be “because of” the support of the Rodney and Del Boy of Croydon politics, rather than “despite”?
The local elections last Thursday, held at most English councils outside London, must be really important for Croydon residents if they deserve so much time from our councillors. What do these elections mean for Croydon?
Political cultures change very quickly once you go over a borough or regional boundary from Greater London to Surrey. Different political histories make a difference to the electoral battlefield over which parties fight. Residents’ groups, for example, have long been dominant in Epsom and Ewell, and last week they got very close to taking control of another local authority neighbouring Croydon, Tandridge.
With voters disillusioned with the Brexit-dominated national scene, there was a huge reversal of the usual trend of support for the two main parties, Tory and Labour.
But it was as much reaction against local planning pressures that made this a great election for residents associations determined to resist the realities of the growth of the population of the south-east.
In Tandridge, residents’ association candidates and independents saw their vote up 40.1per cent, with Tory council leader Martin Fisher losing his council seat, as he polled 1,000 votes fewer than David Stamp, a young rugby player standing for a residents’ association.
Fisher is the second Conservative leader in Tandridge in three years to lose his council seat to an Oxted and Limpsfield Residents’ candidate.
Fisher blamed his defeat on “lack of leadership from Westminster” and the “chaos of Brexit”.
Tandridge, Conservative-held since 2000, is now officially recognised as “No Overall Control”, after residents responded angrily to council plans to build 4,000 homes on Green Belt near Godstone.
“It was clear that many people are keen for independents to represent them at local level and feel that the main political parties are not the right way to go locally,” Stamp told Inside Croydon.
“A big feeling that local government should be for local people. I didn’t get the idea that national issues played a large part. It was local issues and problems with local decision-making and the view that, for a long time, the current administration has not been listening to the community.
Stamp said that key issues raised on the doorstep included “the importance of achieving sensible housing plans which meet local needs, preserve local character, and properly address serious infrastructure concerns such as surgeries, school places and roads”.
In Epsom and Ewell, the residents and independents’ vote was up 37.9per cent.
On the 38-seat council, 32 are now held by various residents’ groups. One of the new resident councillors elected was Monica Coleman, who until 2014 was a loyal LibDem councillor in Sutton, helping to vote through planning permission for the Viridor incinerator.
The largest single political party in Epsom following last week’s elections is now Labour, with a grand total of three seats.
In Reigate and Banstead, the independent and residents’ groups held their seven seats while the Greens doubled their seat tally to six, with 21.5 per cent of the vote. Unlike its neighbouring authorities in Epsom and Tandridge, though, Reigate and Banstead remains a Tory-controlled council despite a fall in vote share of 15.8per cent.
In Epsom, the Tories have been reduced to having a single council seat. In 2017, the area elected a Conservative MP with 60per cent of the vote, so goodness knows what might happen in this commuter belt constituency if rail fares and train service reliability ever became an issue.
Epsom and Ewell’s MP is Chris Grayling.
The results for the Tories in Tandridge, Reigate and Banstead and Epsom and Ewell run from awful to calamitous in elections that replaced councillors elected in 2015, on General Election day. That was a good day for the Tories, when Prime Minister David Cameron won a small overall majority in Parliament. Compared to 2015, last week in Tandridge saw the Tory vote share collapse by 25.2per cent.
Not that it hasn’t been seen coming.
Back in 2016, Inside Croydon reported on the very brave – or reckless – Tory proposals for thousands of new homes there. Gordon Keymer, the previous council leader and something of a grandee in the Conservative Party nationally, lost his council seat soon after to the first OLRG – Oxted and Limpsfield Residents’ Group – candidate, Jackie Wren.
When Stamp won in Oxted North and Tandridge ward last week, the residents’ vote share was 67.8 per cent. Stamp said, “The size of the wins is very striking as is also the turnout – for my election it was 49.5per cent, for Claire Blackwell’s in neighbouring Limpsfield, it was 52per cent.
“These are high for local elections, so it seems more of a pro-OLRG vote than a protest vote. It’s fantastic that so many people are happy to support us and it looks like we are also appealing to people who don’t usually vote in local elections, which is great.”
With just one-third of Tandridge’s council seats (14) up for election, the Tories lost six seats and overall control of the council. A Liberal Democrat alliance with a string of residents’ councillor groups seems the likely outcome there.
A little further afield, in Sussex, Crawley showed a different trend, with Labour enjoying a vote swing from the Tories of 6.55per cent, and as in Croydon last year, all other parties were shut out. Labour holds the council, 19 seats to 17 Conservative.
Labour dropped one seat and will be pleased that the new boundaries allow them still to win the council on a lower overall share of the vote than the Tories. Labour, according to Britain Elects, had a 43.3per cent share compared to the Conservatives’ 44.6per cent. Peter Lamb, the council leader, is also Labour’s Parliamentary candidate for the town, and he will feel buoyed at his prospects in the event of a General Election being called.
Crawley’s architecture, whether physical or political, is similar to Croydon’s. This Croydon-in-Sussex equivalent suggests that in urban areas in London and the south-east, Labour continues to make progress. This mirrors most recent London council by-election results.
A modest six-seat gain across these four councils by the LibDems suggest something of a recovery from 2015, when they took the blame for the austerity coalition, and might be awkward in Croydon for Labour, where their electoral success depends on squeezing the third party vote.
More interesting for Croydon is the way in which residents groups have radicalised the planning issue south of the border.
In Croydon, the Conservatives through Chris Philp, their Croydon South MP, have captured that issue such that Labour cannot even consider making any election progress in parts of the borough where their support is weak.
Tory activity opposing former planning chair Paul Scott’s confrontational approach to development is important, too, for it serves to discourage the nominally “apolitical” residents’ associations from running their own candidates, and potentially splitting the vote.
Residents associations in Croydon are rumoured to be more interested in promoting a directly elected mayor, so that their voice opposing new housing is heard. The success of residents’ groups south of the border shows that voters may be ready to listen to such a siren call.
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