Previews: 11 Jan 2018

“All the right votes, but not necessarily in the right order…”

Four by-elections on 11th January 2018, which fall neatly into two pairs:

Birchington and Rural

Kent county council; and

Thanet Villages

Thanet council, Kent; both caused by the death of Conservative councillor Ken Gregory. After a career as a policeman and fireman, Gregory entered politics in the early 1990s and was elected to Thanet council in 1995, originally as a Labour figure before defecting to the Conservatives in the 2003-07 term. He represented an unusually large number of wards (Dane Park ward 1995-2003, Central Harbour 2003-07, St Peters 2007-11, Garlinge 2011-15, Thanet Villages 2015-17) and had caused controversy in 2012 after leaving a homophobic answerphone message for a fellow councillor, for which he was cautioned by police and suspended from the Conservative group for six months. In May 2017 Gregory was elected to Kent county council, where he was in his first term.

Welcome to the Isle of Thanet, an area which has seen much political focus over the last few years thanks to the rise of UKIP. Our two Thanet by-elections today are concentrated in the west of the Isle and in Thanet’s only rural ward.

Birchington and Rural is a two-seat division of Kent county council which essentially covers the area west of Margate and Ramsgate. The main centres of population are Birchington and Westgate-on-Sea, small resorts on the north coast: Birchington in particular is a retirement centre, with Birchington North ward being in the top 40 in England and Wales for over-64s and retirement. Two wards in western Margate (Garlinge and Westbrook) are also included in the division, while the odd one out is Thanet Villages ward which covers six parishes in the undeveloped part of Thanet.

Undeveloped now, but maybe not for long. For some years now the major hot political potato in Thanet has been the fate of Manston Airport, which is located within Thanet Villages ward. Opened in the winter of 1915-16 by the Royal Flying Corps, Manston has the UK’s eleventh-longest and widest runway – wide enough for three planes to land simultaneously – and its location close to the Continent placed it on the front line during the Battle of Britain. Manston was heavily bombed, and often became the final destination for damaged RAF planes limping home to the UK. After use by the US Air Force in the early part of the Cold War, Manston from 1960 became a joint civilian and RAF airport with the occasional charter and scheduled flight. It was renamed Kent International Airport in 1989, but efforts to attract budget airlines were derailed by the collapse of EUjet – which had bought Manston – in 2005 and the financial crash of 2008. Manston saw its final scheduled flight on 9 April 2014 – a KLM departure to Amsterdam – and officially closed on 15 May 2014 with the loss of 144 jobs. Possibly the widest prominence for the airport came in 2001, when it featured as a North Korean airbase in the James Bond film Die Another Day.

So, what to do with the airport site? This is up to Thanet council as the planning authority. Thanet’s UKIP administration elected in 2015 had a manifesto pledge to reopen the airport to traffic, but nobody has yet come forward with the business plan required for this to work. The landowners have a plan to turn the airport site into 2,500 homes, business units and parkland, a plan which has not found political approval. In the meantime some of the site is taken up by two museums – one on the history of the RAF base, the other dedicated to Spitfires and Hurricanes – and the landowners are receiving payments from the Government to keep the site on standby as an emergency lorry park for use in Operation Stack. With the government’s proposals to leave the EU Customs Union having the potential to lead to major intractable problems at the Port of Dover, one suspects that this could end up being the eventual fate of Manston Airport.

We shall see. For now we must turn to the politics of Birchington and Rural, and Thanet Villages. Birchington and Rural was created in May this year by merging the two former county divisions of Birchington and Villages, and Margate West. Both of those divisions were Conservative in 2005 and 2009 but voted UKIP in 2013. May’s results suggest that the UKIP bubble in Thanet has burst and the Conservatives are back in control: the Tories won the new division with 50% of the vote, to 16% each for Labour and UKIP.

Thanet Villages ward is politically more complicated because of a strong independent vote for Minster parish councillor Bob Grove. Minster-in-Thanet accounts for just over half of the ward’s 5,474 electors; it was the location where St Augustine of Canterbury landed in England in AD 597 and its name comes from the fact that this has been a monastic settlement since the seventh century. Bridge players may note that one of the smaller villages in the ward is called Acol, although the bidding system of that name has no connection to Thanet: it was developed at and named after the Acol bridge club in north-west London.

Bob Grove has recently held all the trump cards in Thanet Villages; he won a by-election in June 2009 and was re-elected at the top of the poll in 2011 and 2015. The other two seats in the ward were traditionally Conservative, but one of them was lost to UKIP in the 2015 election. That 2015 election was fragmented: Grove (who was not opposed by the Conservative slate) had 27%, the Tories 26%, UKIP 24% and the Greens 12%.

Defending for the Conservatives in Thanet Villages is Reece Pugh. A House of Commons researcher, he contested the last by-election in Thanet in Margate Central ward last August; that was a win for Labour, but Pugh is on his home turf this time round. There is an independent candidate, St Nicholas-at-Wade and Sarre parish councillor Sonya Smyth. Interestingly, given that they run Thanet council only as a minority, there is no UKIP candidate. Completing the district ballot paper are Green Party candidate Natasha Ransom, who stood here in 2015, Labour’s Pauline Farrance and the Lib Dems’ Angie Curwen.

Moving up to county level, the defending Conservative candidate is Liz Hurst, a Birchington parish councillor who runs a pet shop. Several candidates appear on both the district and county ballot papers including Labour’s Pauline Farrance, women’s officer for the party’s North Thanet branch. The UKIP candidate is Zita Wiltshire, a former Thanet councillor: she served from 2003 to 2015 as a Conservative councillor for St Peters ward in Broadstairs but lost re-election in 2015 under her new purple colours. Angie Curwen for the Lib Dems and Natasha Ransom for the Greens, both of whom stood here in May’s county elections, complete the county ballot paper.

Birchington and Rural

Parliamentary constituency: North Thanet
Thanet council wards: Birchington North, Birchington South, Garlinge, Thanet Villages, Westbrook, Westgate-on-Sea
ONS Travel to Work Area: Margate and Ramsgate
Postcode districts: CT7, CT8, CT9, CT12

Angie Curwen (LD)
Pauline Farrance (Lab)
Liz Hurst (C)
Nathasha Ransom (Grn)
Zita Wiltshire (UKIP)

May 2017 result C 4529/4103 Lab 1455/1115 UKIP 1418/1141 LD 1076/819 Grn 499

Thanet Villages

Parliamentary constituency: North Thanet
Kent county council division: Birchington and Rural
ONS Travel to Work Area: Margate and Ramsgate
Postcode districts: CT7, CT9, CT12

Angie Curwen (LD)
Pauline Farrance (Lab)
Reece Pugh (C)
Natasha Ransom (Grn)
Sonya Smyth (Ind)

May 2015 result Ind 1326/335 C 1273/1083 UKIP 1197/1033/916 Grn 601 Lab 515
May 2011 result Ind 1209/523 C 1011/837/720 Lab 516/472
June 2009 by-election Ind 937 C 596 LD 316 Lab 133
May 2007 result Ind 793 C 670/625/434 Lab 368/359
May 2003 result C 687/574/572 Ind 627/424/419 Lab 499/380/284

Wyre Rural Central

Lancashire county council; and


Wyre council, Lancashire; both caused by the death of Conservative councillor Vivien Taylor at the age of 56. She had served on Wyre council since 1999 and on Lancashire county council since winning a by-election in November 2011 (until 2017 representing Wyreside division). Taylor was Mayor of Preesall in 2002-03, and since May had been the Lancashire cabinet member for health and wellbeing.

Sometimes the Boundary Commission has to make the best of a bad job, and the northern Fylde peninsula is an area that tends to give them trouble. Wyre Rural Central county division was created in 2017 and is clearly the bit that was left over after the rest of Wyre district had had its divisions drawn. It’s a curiously-shaped and poorly-connected division.

The largest parish within the division is Preesall in the north-west corner. This was once an Urban District of its own and forms a ward of its own on Wyre council. Preesall was traditionally an agricultural centre with some salt-mining, but now functions as a retirement area: it is in the top 200 wards in England and Wales for over-64s and retired population. Included within Preesall parish is Knott End-on-Sea, once the terminus of a branch line from Garstang (which remained independent, as the Knott End Railway, all the way up to the Grouping in 1923). Knott End is directly across the Wyre estuary from Fleetwood town centre and, in season, is connected to it by a passenger ferry. That ferry is the only link between the Lancaster and Fleetwood halves of the marginal Lancaster and Fleetwood constituency.

Also within the county division is the Pilling ward (which makes the top 100 in England and Wales for White British ethnicity). To the south is the village of Great Eccleston on the River Wyre, known for its agricultural show, while the division extends a finger to the north-east as far as the Forton service area on the M6 motorway. Forton is known for its hexagonal tower; dating from the glamorous early days of motorways (the M6 between Preston and Lancaster was in the first ten motorways to be completed) the tower originally housed an upmarket restaurant with views of Morecambe Bay and Bowland. Unfortunately the restaurant closed in 1989 due to fire regulations: there is only one way in and out of the tower, and no way of providing an emergency exit. Two things have prevented the tower’s demolition – it is Grade II listed, and any attempt to demolish it would also involve getting rid of the service area building below it – so the Pennine Tower remains a landmark for traffic passing by on the M6.

As detailed by this column in October, the Conservatives in Lancashire and Wyre appear to have descended into infighting. The goings-on at County Hall in Preston in particular have been astonishing. The Tories won the 2017 Lancashire county election with an overall majority of eight; but one of their councillors has been thrown out of the party for overclaiming thousands of pounds in council tax benefit, and the Leader of the Council Geoff Driver is being investigated by police on suspicion of conspiracy to pervert the course of justice and witness intimidation. Add to that councillor Taylor’s death, the suspension of one Tory councillor (who has since been reinstated) over social media posts and two Tory councillors leaving the party after falling out with Driver, and the opposition Labour group smelt an opportunity to depose the Conservatives. In September the county council debated a no-confidence motion in Driver, which never got to a vote after one of the dissident Conservatives, Tony Jones, suffered a suspected heart attack during the debate. Jones lived to tell the tale, but he has decided not to return to the council chamber and a by-election for his seat is pending. The no-confidence debate reconvened in October and the motion was defeated by 45 votes to 34, but the police investigation goes on and Driver is due to answer bail next month. Stay tuned to Andrew’s Previews for further exciting updates.

It’s rather difficult for the ruling Wyre Conservatives to top that level of political drama. Nonetheless they had a go in September by deposing council and group leader Peter Gibson, ostensibly on health grounds. Gibson apparently did not take it well: he has left the Conservative party (and recently the council) in a huff, and an email attributed to him containing all sorts of allegations about his former council colleagues has been widely distributed on the Lancashire political scene.

Despite all this drama, at the ballot box Over Wyre is not the most politically exciting part of the country. Preesall ward has unchanged boundaries since Wyre’s founding electoral arrangements in 1973, and has had a full slate of Conservatives since 1999 (Labour won one of the three seats in the 1991 and 1995 elections). In the 2015 election the Conservative slate beat Labour 65-35 in a straight fight.

Wyre Rural Central county division has existed only since May 2017. Before then most of the area was included within Wyreside division, a rather more coherent electoral area which included Hambleton and covered nearly all of Over Wyre. Taylor was elected for Wyreside in a by-election in November 2011, and was re-elected in May last year by beating Labour 71-18.

Defending Wyre Rural Central for the Conservatives is Matthew Salter, a 24-year-old PhD student at Lancaster University. The Labour candidate Nic Fogg has received an interesting endorsement: from Harold Elletson, the former Conservative MP for Blackpool North. Both Fogg and Elletson are critical of plans to allow gas storage and fracking under Over Wyre. Completing the ballot paper is Green candidate Susan Whyte.

The Conservative candidate for the Preesall district by-election is Peter Cartridge, who during the campaign proposed renaming the Knott End ferryboat after Vivien Taylor. He fought Warren ward in Fleetwood in the 2015 election. In a straight fight Cartridge is opposed by the aforementioned Nic Fogg, who has fought every district election in Preesall this century.

Wyre Rural Central

Parliamentary constituency: Lancaster and Fleetwood (part: Pilling and Preesall wards and part of Wyresdale ward), Wyre and Preston North (part: part of Great Eccleston ward)
Wyre council wards: Pilling, Preesall, Great Eccleston (part: Great Eccleston, Inskip-with-Sowerby and Upper Rawcliffe-with-Tarnacre parishes), Wyresdale (part: Forton parish)
ONS Travel to Work Area: Blackpool (Preesall ward); Preston (rest of division)
Postcode districts: FY6, LA2, PR3, PR4

Nic Fogg (Lab)
Matthew Salter (C)
Susan Whyte (Grn)

May 2017 result C 2714 Lab 684 Grn 429


Parliamentary constituency: Lancaster and Fleetwood
Lancashire county council division: Wyre Rural Central
ONS Travel to Work Area: Blackpool
Postcode districts: FY6, PR3

Peter Cartridge (C)
Nic Fogg (Lab)

May 2015 result C 2008/1944/1818 Lab 1082/880/819
May 2011 result C 1299/1226/1220 Lab 656 UKIP 530
May 2007 result C 1418/1386/1380 Lab 496/428
May 2003 result C 1012/936/935 Ind 750 Lab 498/412
May 1999 result C 1180/1096/1072 Lab 598/524 Ind 427
May 1995 result C 1034/1028/900 Lab 1030/938/928
May 1991 result C 1089/1038/982 Lab 1037/905/878
May 1987 result C 1334/1199/1121 Lab 540/532
May 1983 result 3 C unopposed
May 1979 result 3 C unopposed
May 1976 result C 1116/1091/939 Ind 438/286 Lib 335 NF 241
May 1973 result Ind 1374/729/650 C 894/537/480