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Independents’ Day?

local elections

Steve Cole is a maverick politician. First elected over fifteen years ago, Steve spent most of these representing the Canvey Island Independent Party (CIIP), then the Conservative Party (including a brief spell as Mayor) and then just himself (Non-Aligned Independent) on Castle Point Borough Council.  

About two years ago, Steve set up his own party – the People’s Independent Party (PIP) – to oppose the Conservative’s draft Local Plan.

About one year ago, Steve became Deputy Leader of the Council after the PIP struck a deal with CIIP – ending the Tories’ 20 years of control. First order of business? Swiftly withdrawing the draft Local Plan, of course.

Life in Castle Point moves fast. After one year in the job, Steve has announced he is standing down as a councillor this May. Why? He’s had enough. To be more specific, he’s had enough ‘of the way things are going with the local plan’ and ‘waiting for brownfield sites to come available.’

His seat is one of 1,388 seats occupied by greens, independents and ‘others’ up for election this year. In their last election cycle (2019), this hotchpotch group received 17% of the equivalent national vote – on par with the Liberal Democrats and up 7 points on their previous share in 2015. This is not a quirk of this specific cycle, either. Over the past three years, this group has consistently broken into the mid-teens and firmly out of its natural habitat of Epsom & Ewell.

This rise is apparent in mine and Steve’s home county and traditional Conservative hinterland, Essex. Not counting the national parties (and the sole UKIP councillor in Tendring), there are 138 councillors who are ‘independent’ or represent a local party across the twelve local authorities up for election.

The county’s concentration of independents and seeming penchant for establishing local parties has no immediate explanation – the groups are diffuse and often hyper-local in their concerns. Certainly, ‘inappropriate’ development and ‘excessive’ housing targets appear to be fan favourites, evidenced by the success of Residents 4 Uttlesford (anti-Stansted Airport) and Steve’s PIP (anti-Local Plan). Other common sources of grievance include potholes and bin collections, as well an often-febrile opposition to top-heavy governance (who else to point to but the Canvey Island Independence Party here).

Underpinning these issues is the idea that local people should tackle local issues – the implication being that those who represent national parties care more about the whip rather than the people they represent. By contrast, independents and local parties are not bound by loyalty and can ‘stand up’ to the administration, developers, government (delete as appropriate). It’s clearly a compelling argument. Local authorities, never mind residents of them, are being stretched like never before – with essential services on the line and nice-to-haves gone a long way back – while council tax continues to rise.

However, good intentions and campaign promises can only go as far as your budget, and the council’s statutory duties. Inevitably, an independent administration elected to withdraw the draft Local Plan will have to make a new Local Plan. Inevitably, an independent administration inheriting an empty tank of reserves will have to produce a balanced budget by raising council tax and cutting community services. Uttlesford, in a rather extreme example, currently owes Stansted Airport £2.2m in legal costs after it reversed planning approval for the Airport’s growth plans a year after the Residents 4 Uttlesford administration ousted the Tories. 

It only further complicates matters that independent councillors are just that – independent in mind. Consensus is not guaranteed, and indeed as Felicity Matthews has remarked, it can be hard to keep a lid on a Smarties tube once it has been opened.

The 2019 elections took place against a backdrop of national political instability, with May’s Conservatives and Corbyn’s Labour teetering on the edge of Brexit. The national picture, now calmer, might throw up some difficult challenges for independent councillors in Essex relying on wooing past-protest voters.

While independents will still continue to snap up vulnerable seats, it is likely voters will be tempted back to the main political parties for a dry-run of the general election that still seems far away on the horizon. This county will be one to watch to see if this will be the case – paying close attention to Rochford, Castle Point, Uttlesford and Tendring.