By anyone’s reckoning, the 2023 local elections were a shocker for the Conservatives, losing 1,061 councillors principally to Labour (+536), Lib Dem (+407) and Greens (+241), the country’s political landscape has changed.
With over 8,000 seats, 230 local authorities, and 4 mayorships up for grabs, the results were… not Conservative. Yet while some authorities, such as Windsor and Maidenhead, managed an outright win (Lib Dems from Conservatives), for others the results left a huge patchwork of authorities with No Overall Control. It is hard to recall a political map looking so grey.
What should developers be thinking about following an election where there has been change?
Local government is a different beast to Westminster. Regardless of political party, local authorities up and down the country are facing huge challenges to balance their books:
- Should they or shouldn’t they raise council tax during a cost-of-living crisis?
- How will they meet their obligations for elderly care?
- Can you build a new school where there is high demand while closing another in a less affluent area?
- How will they deliver local services?
- Will anyone notice if you push through a pro-growth agenda having campaigned vehemently against the Local Plan?
The answer to these questions is dependent on a huge range of factors: What state were the council’s finances before May 2023? Who now represents which ward? What local issues were central to the election campaign? How experienced are the councillors in control and is that experience matched by the opposition, some of whom may know where the bodies are buried…?
Before drawing conclusions, the first task is to wait. While King Charles III received his crown this weekend, kingmaking of a different kind will have been taking place in the likes of Hertsmere, Runnymede, Cherwell and Rutland. In many local authorities, leaders and cabinet members have gone, new members find themselves in control – often for the first time. AGMs will be taking place within the next two to three weeks to determine who should lead, which could take a while to become clear.
The next task for any new administration is to work out which election pledges can be realistically achieved, taking into account the new political makeup, finances and personalities at both member and officer level. Campaigning is one thing, but governing is another. One of the frustrations in local authorities where they elect members by thirds, is that it can feel like there is only campaign mode, the consequence being short-term policy making.
It is also important not to make assumptions. In many of the now Lib Dem held local authorities, the party faces a real conundrum. At national level they are committed to growth and significant housing targets, while at local level, many have campaigned and won on the back of what often feels like a NIMBY ticket.
We know from our work in places like Elmbridge, which remains No Overall Control, just how challenging it is to argue for development, even in more built-up locations let alone in the leafier parts. The Lib Dems have made gains this time around, and the hope here is that the experience of the Lib Dem Leader, formerly Chief Executive of neighbouring RB Kingston-upon-Thames, will serve to inject a reality check on fellow councillors.
Rutland is another authority where the Lib Dems put a serious dent in the Conservatives’ majority, becoming the largest party but without an overall majority. This is a place where there has been significant fallout in relation to their Local Plan process. From our experience here where we are engaging on significant MOD landholdings, it is hard to imagine that the change will impact one way or the other. Quite deliberately, we have been engaging with all councillors continually, with relatively few differentials between the two opposing political parties.
Of course, building support across the political spectrum is the key on longer-term projects. Having recently been appointed to manage Oxford University Development’s (OUD) corporate communications and public affairs, this point is clearly illustrated by the smorgasbord of political parties at local, regional and national level now in play. OUD’s objectives align with the headline message for both Labour and the Conservatives, certainly at national level, i.e. growth and investment. At local level, that message must be tailored to give confidence that growth is something that is sustainable for the local community. The reality is that long-term projects will go through numerous councillors, MPs and Governments.
The real clarity and positive thought about house building is coming from Labour. Nationally, the party has pledged to bring back house building targets, a clear win for developers and prospective homeowners across the country. According to various sources, Labour will also look at the green belt differently and identify sites within the green belt that could be developed. This is something our industry has been crying out for. Labour has made housing an important part of their agenda ahead of a General Election and so the question must be asked, are Labour now the party of home ownership?
In Gravesham DC, another authority where Cascade is currently active, Labour has gained the council from No Overall Control having campaigned for economic prosperity. The leadership there has pushed for development in Northfleet, supporting plans to transform the area with thousands of new homes, commercial and retail space and a new stadium for Ebbsfleet FC. Neighbouring Medway Council was another key win for Labour. It seems clear that frustrations with the Conservatives at a national level played out on these results, notwithstanding the key point that all politics is local.
This point is something that played out in Bournemouth, Christchurch and Poole, where it was a disastrous night for the Conservatives, reduced to just 12 councillors following a tumultuous period in office, which included the sudden resignation of their leader in February citing significant disagreements with senior officers and the Council’s auditor. It is likely that a coalition between the Liberal Democrats and the Independents will now be formed.
It is important to acknowledge too the rise of the Greens, who took control of their first local authority – Mid Suffolk District Council – and who added 241 councillors to their tally across the country. At national level, the environment has been talked about constantly, a campaign that has handed the Greens electoral credibility. For developers, take note – the ability to deliver and evidence the delivery of sustainable development will rise even further up the political agenda. We anticipate councils where the Greens have a share in the balance of power to raise the bar further on environmental measures.
Change to the political landscape has been significant in many places, the consequences at national level will be analysed in detail over the coming weeks and months. Yet let’s end where we began, the challenges for incoming and returning administrations remain. Politics is about choices.
With the UK in the worst cost of living crisis for a generation and inflation stubbornly remaining in double figures, all parties will be faced with some tough decisions over the year ahead. Planning remains a relative unknown with many local authorities pausing their local plan process in response to the government’s decision to scrap mandatory housing targets. And frankly, who can blame them? With the government now onto its fifth Housing Minister in a year and no clear commitment or direction in this area, is it any wonder why councillors responsible for delivering new homes feel somewhat bewildered?
Cascade can help inject some certainty for clients at least. Advising clients across the UK on public affairs, reputation management and stakeholder engagement, we can help navigate the local picture and position clients on the national stage.