Northamptonshire County Council elections 2017
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County Hall has been a Conservative stronghold for 12 years – but amid a tumultuous time for the budget-strapped county council opposition parties are planning to lay siege.
Campaigning has begun in the Northamptonshire County Council elections, with voters set to go to the polls on Thursday, May 4.
And this newspaper has learned the key areas the council’s opposition groups want to capitalise on if it is to get the huge swing needed for victory.
The authority is made up of 57 seats – 36 of which are Conservative held, 11 are Labour, six are Liberal Democrat, three are held by the UK Independence Party and there is one independently-held seat.
Northamptonshire County Council is currently controlled by the Conservatives, with Labour forming the second largest party.
It means the nearest challenger – Labour – will effectively need a swing of 29 to claim the council, no easy feat. But the past five years have been the toughest for the Conservatives of County Hall.
The party has overseen £300m of cuts over the past four of those years, with the past two successive budgets greeted with protests.
The incumbents have been largely criticised for their decision to freeze council tax until last year. Questions have been raised over the need for a £53m new headquarters in Angel Street and the 2013 “inadequate” rating of the county’s children’s services was damning. Recent decisions to close children’s centres and dementia cafes will no doubt be exploited in opposition campaign literature.
The administration will point to their claim Angel Street will effectively pay for itself within 30 years, how they have kept council tax among the lowest councils in the UK and how children’s services have now moved out of “inadequate” after ploughing £62 million into the department since then.
The 2000s have been dominated by the Conservatives here in Northamptonshire – and a changing of the guard will take a monumental effort.
Heather Smith, leader of the Conservative group
Sticking with Tory tradition, the incumbent party are promising to stand as the party of stability.
The Chronicle & Echo has learned the Conservatives will aim to keep council tax low, despite its last budget raising the amount people pay by the maximum amount possible.
But its manifesto will also come with a promise not to spread “false news”.
Recent claims in Lib Dem party literature claiming the county council has come to the brink of insolvency under Conservative watch are not true, the Tories say. Elsewhere the party will look to share more buildings with the NHS to save money and will continue with its “next generation” council plan to split the authority into not-for-profit companies.
Group leader Heather Smith said: “We are acknowledging that we are going to continue with another four years of austerity, money is going to stay very tight.
“Funding from the European Investment Fund is going to stop in two years and we don’t know what’s going to happen after then.
“I can’t make promises we don’t know we can achieve.”
Mrs Smith says her party is the best placed to negotiate more funding from Tory colleagues in Whitehall.
If Green candidates are voted in we will do everything we can to press for unitary authorities.
They may not be fielding a candidate in every seat and the local group’s biggest name – converted former Labour MP Tony Clarke – is not running this year, but it would be foolish to write off the environmentally-conscious Greens.
Unsurprisingly, with an area of Kingthorpe, Northampton, shown to have some of the highest air pollution figures in the country, the local party is fielding candidates there.
Notably both Kingthorpe’s current councillors Michaael Brown (UKIP) and Sally Beardsworth (Lib Dem) will be standing down, leaving what the Greens see as an opportunity to capitalise.
The party is hoping to take its first ever seats on the county council, the Chronicle & Echo has learned the party aims to press for the council to be abolished in a move towards smaller local unitary authorities.
Spokesman Steve Miller said: “If Green candidates are voted in we will do everything we can to press for smaller unitary authorities that are better placed to serve the needs of local people."
John McGhee, leader of the Labour group
As well as retaining its 11 seats, Labour will be targeting resources in Finedon, Corby Rural, St George’s (Northampton) and Billing and Rectory Farm (currently held by MP David Mackintosh) says its deputy leader Bob Scott.
“It’s not impossible to win,” the incumbent for the Lloyds seat in Corby added. “But the nearer we get to that target the better. We are obviously hoping to win, but if we get close to that target we may well end up with a hung council .”
Labour intends to launch its manifesto next week, but early signs are the party plans to rip up the Conservative aim of becoming a “next generation council” by 2020.
The authority is currently in the process of moving all bar 150 staff over to four commissioning bodies, which will effectively run all the council’s services on its behalf.
Labour intends to bring everything back in house.
“We strongly believe the roles are quite adequate as they are,” said Mr Scott. “We believe if we get the management structure right we will perform better. We have always been opposed to the next generation model.”
They may have had a tough few years at a national level, but the Liberal Democrats have been busy picking up by-election wins across Northamptonshire since 2015.
Most notably Brian Markham’s win at Westone in Northampton saw him take a seemingly safe Conservative seat.
This year will see the party focus its efforts on adult social care and children’s services, as well as its desire for three unitary authorities in Northamptonshire.
Group leader Brendan Glynane said: “It’s your children and your grandchildren we want to see protected.
“We want to get those right before we start making bold capital ventures.”
The Lib Dems are focusing resources in South Northants, Daventry, Corby and Kettering, and they believe they can make gains on their six current seats.
“Part of that is people are more prepared to listen now,” Mr Glynane said.
“Before we were in the Coalition, people didn’t want to listen to us, it turned people off us.
“That is different now.”
Mr Glynane believes the Lib Dems have been the “true opposition” at County Hall over the past five years.
“The Conservatives have had ideas that haven’t worked out,” he said. “What we’ve had from them over the past four years has been cut, cut, cut – salami politics.
“They have cut so much they don’t have the resources to do anything.”
We have got a vision for Northampton, we want to look to the future, not the past. There has been an enormous lack of forward planning in this county and it may take some delivering, but we have something we want to take forward.
Though two of UKIP’s three sitting members, Michael Brown and Adam Collyer, will not be standing in the elections in May, the party is hoping to make real gains with bold plans for a light railway in Northampton.
The group even believes it can ride straight into power in the county on the back of its Brexit success.
The party aims to field a candidate in all 57 seats and an early look at its manifesto shows some bold initiatives. Former Northampton South Parliamentary candidate Rose Gibbins has revealed the party wants to build a light railway starting in the north of the town centre.
She said: “We have got a vision for Northampton, we want to look to the future, not the past.
“There has been an enormous lack of forward planning in this county and it may take some delivering, but we have something we want to take forward.”
Mrs Gibbins says the policy is being looked at because about 8,000 homes are planned for the north of Northampton, with only a faint hope of an orbital ring road currently in the offing as a way of dealing with the huge increase in cars.
UKIP will also be prioritising pothole repairs and wants to build an NHS training station in Northampton to deal with the staffing crisis in the medical profession.
“People are still looking for an alternative,” said Mrs Gibbins.
“We still have a real role to play in challenging Theresa May’s Government.”