While some elections in the region may be getting more attention than others from political aficionados, plenty is going on with other councils throughout the southwest, Wiltshire being one such authority.
The Conservatives will be confident that they can maintain their hold on the council amid strong opposition locally regarding the county’s scale of housing development over the coming years. The Conservatives have controlled Wiltshire Council since it was formed as a unitary authority in 2010 and hold 62 seats out of 98. The Liberal Democrats are the main opposition party and hold 21 seats. But the chances of their preventing another Conservative majority appear slim. The party will aim to continue its relative local success over recent years, with three by-election victories since 2017.
A backdrop of development uncertainty
The council is carrying out a review of its Core Strategy which was adopted in 2015. The Local Plan Review has set a target of approximately 45,600 new homes up to 2036. This number, and how the homes will be distributed around the county, have unsurprisingly proven to be controversial issues during the first stage of consultation online earlier this year.
For instance, in Chippenham, the announcement that over 9,000 homes (20 per cent of the total number of homes needed) would be built in and around the town provoked strong reactions as it was a substantial increase over the 4,500 required in the adopted Core Strategy. Outrage was shared between residents, the local Civic Society, Chippenham Town Council and the Conservative member of Parliament for North Wiltshire, James Gray MP.
Anti-development groups have formed, and Chippenham Town Council has condemned the Local Plan Review. Mr Gray has called on residents to “stop the onward march of philistine developers” ina bid to keep Wiltshire “how we like it – green and pleasant”.
With several Chippenham seats controlled by the Conservatives, the Liberal Democrats will hope that opposition to mass development will boost their chances of success.
Veteran councillor Toby Sturgis stands down after 16 years. He is currently the Cabinet Member for Spatial Planning, Development Management and Property. He has been central to the Local Plan Review process and the public face of the recent consultation. His Cabinet successor will be a high-profile appointment should the Conservatives retain control of the council.
Labour’s struggles open door for Liberal Democrats?
The factionalism of the Labour Party nationally during the Corbyn years and since Keir Starmer became leader is well known. But the party is also facing problems locally. In some authorities, the party is struggling to find enough candidates. This appears to be the case in Wiltshire. Labour is fielding 54 candidates, compared to 72 in 2017.
The party has never been a heavy hitter in Wiltshire. Just three councillors were elected in 2017. The absence of Labour candidates in some wards could open doors for the Liberal Democrats. The main opposition party may be eyeing up specific seats that were close last time out and are now vacated by Labour. This list includes Chippenham Hardenhuish where the Conservative majority is only 35. The Liberal Democrats are likely to hammer home the familiar message that Wiltshire is a ‘two-horse race’ and that they are the only option to prevent a Conservative-controlled council.
The Wiltshire elections look set to provide us with an intriguing insight into how planning for much needed new homes, in the teeth of fierce grassroots opposition, affects the local political landscape.