Local elections – the picture in the North of England

Much of Lancashire on a political knife edge

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At first glance the ugly heap of rain-sodden mattresses and other discarded rubbish dumped in full view of residents on a council estate is just an isolated local eyesore.

But the prevalence of other grotesque fly-tipping messes elsewhere in and around Bradford’s Holme Wood, one of the North’s biggest public sector housing schemes, suggests a more serious problem.

While it has become a critical campaigning issue in elections for the Tong ward of Bradford Metropolitan Council, its root cause is traced to Westminster 200 miles away. For fly-tipping is one of the local issues cited as reflecting the harm national government has caused local authorities since the Conservatives came to power in 2010.

Council funding cuts

In Bradford, special council collections of bulky items like beds, cookers and fridges were once free. Now, though, the council’s waste collection service levies a minimum charge of £30, plus a scale of other charges for taking away unwanted electrical appliances.

Like most councils, Bradford was forced to make residents stump up for such collections following cuts to its funding by central government. Since 2010 the city has lost more than £310 million and needs to find new ways to pay for core services like social care, schools and roads. However, the charges are unaffordable for many residents on Holme Wood, said to be one of the most economically and socially deprived housing estates in the UK. Three quarters of people who live there don’t own a car, making trips to household waste collection points impossible for them.

Disillusionment with the three main political parties has already seen Holme Wood voters elect Green candidates as two of the ward’s three councillors. Mounting a strong campaign to make it three out of three, Ursula Sutcliffe blames the government’s whittling away of funds to the city for many of the estate’s ills. But in her fight to take a council seat from Labour, which has a 14-seat majority in Bradford, she also accuses the ruling party of abandoning Holme Wood.

“Over the last 15 to 20 years everything has gone,” she says. “You don’t need to look on a stats board to see what’s been taken away from Holme Wood. All local councils have suffered Tory cuts to their funding, but it seems this estate is always the first to be hit when Bradford Council reduces services.”

Sheffield’s tree felling fiasco

Fly-tipping, she says, is a symbol of 13 years of Tory cuts to local government funding, and has forced itself to the front of Sutcliffe’s election campaign. On the estate she points to burst household waste bags, soaked mattresses and sofas, rusting fridges and empty paint tins. Earlier this month someone dumped 20 used gas canisters.

Candidates blaming local issues on the failure of central government is one reason why some commentators see the local elections as the biggest popularity test for political parties since the 2019 general election. In the past, local election results have often been an effective proxy for the wider electoral health of the parties.

But early expectations of a huge swing to Labour may have been misplaced. The party’s lead in opinion polls following Liz Truss’s short and tumultuous premiership last year has shrunk from a commanding 27 points ahead to around 14 points this month.

This could affect a number of finely balanced contests, many of which are in the North. Although there is unlikely to be a major shock in Bradford, where Labour has a comfortable majority, through Sutcliffe and other candidates the Greens are bidding to take the position of third largest party from the Liberal Democrats.

In Sheffield, where a third of council seats are up for election, the Greens are poised to play a more decisive role, especially since one of the main issues plays to their electoral strengths: a controversial 2012 decision by then-Labour controlled Sheffield City Council to fell thousands of healthy trees. Last month, an independent inquiry described the councillors behind the scheme as “deluded” and accused them of dishonesty for pursuing a policy that led to elderly residents being arrested while trying to protect trees from chainsaws.

The Greens start the election with 14 councillors. They are already engaged in a cross-party administration with Labour and the LibDems. While Labour is the largest party and requires just five gains to achieve a majority, it may pay a high price for the tree felling fiasco.

Another Yorkshire city with no overall party control is York. It’s run by a Lib Dem-Green coalition but Labour is not lagging far behind the main LibDem group. In Hull, interest centres on whether Lib Dems can hang onto control of the city council after ending years of Labour rule in 2022. But the loss of just a couple of Lib Dem seats could return the administration to Labour.

In Kirklees, which includes a number of former mill towns centred on Huddersfield, the contest is also finely poised and could be sensitive to the Conservatives’ slump in national polls. Labour goes into the election with a simple majority of one, and hopes to to take some of the Tories’ 18 seats.

Political knife edge

The fight for control of Calderdale, which Labour rules with a majority of five, could be affected by reaction to the council’s Local Plan agreed last month. It calls for 10,000 new homes being built over the next decade, many of them controversially on green belt land.

Across the Pennines, the elections for Bolton Metropolitan Borough Council may see Labour restore the control the party enjoyed for more than 30 of the last 40 years. It topped the poll in May 2022, but to do so again it has to fend off the rise of localist Independent groups like Farnworth and Kearsley First and Horwich and Blackrod First, which between them have five seats. A further eight seats are represented by other Independent councillors.

Also on a political knife edge are the councils of West Lancashire, Blackpool, Wirral, Stockport, Ribble, Pendle and Hyndburn. Lancaster should be watched to see whether the Greens can hold onto their coalition with Independents, or whether Labour, as the largest party and the main challenger, can take over.

Back on Holme Wood, Sutcliffe believes the trend of voters who are disillusioned with Labour councils shifting to the Green Party will continue.

“People who walk round here can see the effect of the cuts, not just in the fly-tipping,” she says. “And they’re giving the Greens a chance.”

This year’s battlegrounds

On 4 May, elections will be held in 230 of England’s local authority areas. The seats were last contested four years ago and it will be the biggest test of the government’s popularity since the general election in December 2019.

A total of 8,057 seats are up for grabs in 4,831 wards, from big cities like Liverpool, Manchester, Bradford, Leeds, Sheffield and Hull, to smaller district councils in rural areas. Mayoral elections will also be held in Mansfield and Middlesbrough.

The Conservatives started their campaign trailing well behind Labour in national opinion polls. They have the added problem of defending the highest number of seats and thus potentially suffering the biggest losses. Also, since the last set of local elections a year ago they they have made a net loss of 40 seats in council by-elections.

The party currently controls 83 local authorities and has 3,365 councillors fighting for survival, 42 per cent of all seats being contested. By contrast, Labour controls 49 councils and is defending 2,131 seats. The Lib Dems have control of 17 councils and are defending 1,223 seats. The Green Party, a growing force in local politics, is defending 240 seats.

Of the 230 local authorities holding elections, 152 of them are smaller district councils, and many of these are currently run by the Conservatives with the main challenge coming from the Lib Dems.

Almost all of England’s big 32 metropolitan boroughs holding elections are run by Labour, including those in Leeds, Liverpool and Manchester, and recent polling suggests these are unlikely to change hands. The most interesting contests of the local elections will be for councils currently run by coalitions.

According to Jonathan Carr-West, chief executive of the non-partisan thinktank the Local Government Information Unit, last year’s political chaos in Westminster has produced a general expectation that the Conservatives will do badly in this year’s local elections. But, he points out, many seats up for re-election were last contested in 2019 when the party did very badly, losing over 1,300 seats and 44 councils.

“To do badly from this base would be to do very badly indeed. So conversely it could go better [for the Conservatives] than many anticipate. This in turn creates a pressure of expectations on opposition parties.”

The elections will make UK history as the first time voters require photographic identification at polling stations before casting their ballot. Acceptable forms of ID include passport, driving license, blue badge and concessionary travel pass. Controversially, not acceptable are student cards and young people’s travel passes, leading to accusations the scheme is an attempt by the government to make it harder to vote for sections of society deemed less likely to support the Conservatives.

Those without acceptable photo ID can apply for a Voter Authority Certificate at gov.uk/apply-for-photo-id-voter-authority-certificate but the deadline is 5pm on 25 April.

Photo: The Green Party’s Ursula Sutcliffe at one of many fly-tipping sites on Bradford’s Holme Wood estate (Roger Ratcliffe)

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