By Douglas Johnson
Last week’s local elections in England saw the Liberal Democrats make significant gains at the expense of the Conservatives and Labour. It’s tempting to focus on the national significance on the results, particularly with European elections now two weeks away. But for those working in the local government areas affected by the elections, it’s important to think about who actually won in their area and what this means for them.
As with any election involving a large shift in support from one party to another, the vote saw a large number of new councillors elected. The Conservatives have lost more than 1,300 seats, Labour a more modest 63. Of those elected, many are first-time councillors. At newly formed Somerset West and Taunton Council, for example, 32 of 59 new councillors have not sat before – more than half. This is true even at councils where control has not changed hands. In West Suffolk, where the Conservatives’ majority has been cut to 4 by a surge in voting for independent candidates, around two-thirds of the opposition members are newly elected.
In our experience, the impact of a large number of new councillors taking position at the same time can be significant. New councillors tend to have a limited understanding of planning. Where they sit on planning committees, this can make them dependent on officers until they find their feet. Their inexperience can also increase the importance of the chair or members of their group’s leadership who have been placed on the committee to act as an informal ‘whip’. In these circumstances, developers allow more time to brief members as they become more familiar with planning matters. A preponderance of new members may also have a significant impact on Local Plans. Members are less constrained by officers’ guidance on Local Plans, and may therefore feel more able to change course – whether on specific allocations or the Plan as a whole.
Local issues are also important for new councillors. While the results have been interpreted nationally as a rebuke to the way the Conservatives and Labour have handled Brexit, its importance is not straightforward and can be overstated. In the South West, which voted heavily to leave the European Union in 2016, 4 councils have returned to the Liberal Democrat fold and others have fallen into no overall control as a result of Liberal Democrat gains. While this may be as much a result of demoralised Conservative voters staying at home, it has resulted in the election of candidates who have also campaigned hard on planning and other local issues. In the south in particular, the list of authorities where control has changed hands reads equally like one you might find on MHCLG’s website for those in trouble over their Local Plans – Arun, Guildford, Uttlesford. Even in normally deep-blue Oxfordshire, the Conservatives lost control of both Vale of the White Horse District Council and South Oxfordshire District Council to Liberal Democrats running to a large extent on their opposition to the Local Plan and other developments across the districts.
New councillors will be expected by voters to deliver on their campaigning. This may represent a threat to those invested in the existing Local Plan – but also an opportunity to those who have an alternative solution. Where councillors have campaigned on their opposition to development, we can also expect a relatively low level of trust and a suspicion of those bringing forward schemes. Developers will need to consider how they can work to make it politically feasible for these councillors to engage positively.
Even in authorities where control has not changed hands, business is unlikely to continue as usual. Some majorities remain very large – in Bracknell Forest, for example, the Conservatives still control 38 of 42 seats, while Labour continues to control all but one seat at Leicester City Council. However, in the 107 authorities where the ruling party’s majority is either less than 5 or non-existent, the leadership is likely to become more risk averse and to pick easy targets. This may lead to Local Plan processes slowing and councillors being less willing to take brave decisions on controversial schemes. We may also see a chilling effect for developers in councils due to have elections in 2020, with leaders taking steps to reinforce their position ahead of the vote.
We face a changed world locally. New faces – and a nervous old guard – are likely to create a more difficult environment in councils for developers. This will crystallise once councils appoint members to their committees at their AGMs later this month. There are no quick or easy solutions to the challenge this presents – it will take time to build relationships and trust with so many new councillors. But taking the time to identify who is now in charge, and engaging directly, is a start.