Previews: 05 Apr 2018

With the ordinary May elections imminent, there are just ten local by-elections in April and four on 5th April to end your tax year. Today’s four polls fall into two interesting pairs: there are two Conservative defences in coastal wards, and two polls in remote independent-dominated areas at opposite ends of the UK. The Tory wards are both very safe, but the independent-held seat in Somerset is a free-for-all, and the Scottish National Party have a difficult-looking defence in one of the most iconic wards of the Highlands. Read on…


Milford

New Forest council, Hampshire; caused by the death of Conservative councillor Sophie Beeton, who had served since winning a by-election in July 2012. She was New Forest’s cabinet member for the environment from 2015 until stepping down late last year, and had been a Milton-on-Sea parish councillor since before she was elected to the district council.

One of England’s largest second-tier districts by population, New Forest district may be named after ancient woodland but that’s not typical of where most of its residents live. Most of the New Forest’s council taxpayers are instead concentrated in the Southampton suburb of Totton, towns on the Solent coast such as Hythe and Lymington, and a retirement belt on the Channel coast centred on New Milton, which is to all intents and purposes an extension of the Bournemouth-Poole conurbation. Just off the eastern end of that conurbation is the village of Milton-on-Sea, and beyond that is the southernmost point of Hampshire: Hurst Castle, on a narrow spit of land which juts out into the sea and marks the western end of the Solent. If you don’t fancy walking along the spit, then during the tourist season you can catch a boat to the Castle from the village of Keyhaven.

Keyhaven and Hurst Castle are within the New Forest National Park, but Milford-on-Sea is outside it. Milford-on-Sea gives its name to a ward which includes Keyhaven, Hurst Castle and a small part of the village of Everton. A major employer within the ward was once Horticulture Research International, an arm of DEFRA, which ran the Efford Horticultural Research Station; the site closed in 2004 due to privatisation, but is still in horticultural use as a nursery.

I described this area as a retirement belt, and the census return makes clear that this is indeed an elephant’s graveyard. Milford ward is in the top 15 wards in England and Wales for residents aged 65 or over (43% of the population), and in the top 30 for retirement (33% of the workforce). Those here who are young enough to work tend to have well-paid jobs.

Politically you won’t be surprised from that description to hear that this is a true blue ward. In the 2015 election the Tory slate here polled 80% against opposition only from a single Labour candidate. The Conservatives were similarly untroubled in last year’s county election, in which they polled 77% across the cumbersomely-named division of New Milton North, Milford and Hordle.

There’s a wider choice in this by-election, although local resident and Conservative candidate Christine Hopkins would have to be a short-priced favourite. She is opposed by Sally Spicer for Labour and Lib Dem candidate Wynford Davies.

Parliamentary constituency: New Forest West
Hampshire county council division: New Milton North, Milford and Hordle
ONS Travel to Work Area: Southampton
Postcode district: SO41

Wynford Davies (LD)
Christine Hopkins (C)
Sally Spicer (Lab)

May 2015 result C 2282/2232 Lab 582
July 2012 by-election C 963 Lab 240
May 2011 result C 1802/1678 Lab 492
May 2007 result C 1512/1435 LD 400
May 2003 result C 1371/1274 LD 435/354


Wiveliscombe and West Deane

Taunton Deane council, Somerset; caused by the resignation of independent councillor Steve Ross, who had served since 2011, due to work commitments.

We move into the West Country for a bit of a view. With an altitude of 413 feet, Wiveliscombe (stressed on the third syllable) claims to be Somerset’s highest town, although “town” is a bit of a stretch for a settlement of fewer than 3,000 souls. Nonetheless this is a rather isolated part of southern England – Taunton, the main town in the area, is nine miles away along a B-road – and Wiveliscombe does function as a service centre for the parishes at the western end of the Vale of Taunton Deane. A rather tautological name there, as “Deane” is an Old English word with the same meaning as the Latinate “Vale”. So has “combe” for that matter; “combe” is a Celtic word for a valley. Four parishes from the Vale (or Deane, or Combe) are included in this ward, making up its West Deane component.

Wiveliscombe traditionally sends independent candidates to Taunton Deane council. In the 2015 election the independent slate polled 39%, to 32% for the single Conservative candidate and 16% for the Liberal Democrats. For a clue as to what might happen here without an independent candidate on the ballot we need to go up a tone to county level; the ward is part of the Upper Tone division of Somerset county council, which has been Conservative-held since it was drawn up in 1981 although Steve Ross came close to gaining it as an independent a couple of times.

Your columnist has form for getting this sort of prediction badly wrong, but this may be the last time I have to write about Taunton Deane council other than in a historic sense. The council is in merger talks with West Somerset, a tiny local government district based on Exmoor, and the merged council could well come into being for the 2019 local elections.

This by-election will see party politics break out in Wiveliscombe, as there is no new independent candidate to replace Ross. Possibly best placed to gain, judging by the county result, is Conservative candidate Phillip Thorne, a smallholder from Waterrow which is one of the West Deane villages in the ward. The Liberal Democrats have selected Susan Levinge, a parish councillor in Chipstable – another of the West Deane villages – and qualified technical librarian. Completing the ballot paper is Wiveliscombe resident Dave Mansell for the Green Party.

Parliamentary constituency: Taunton Deane
Somerset county council division: Upper Tone
ONS Travel to Work Area: Taunton
Postcode districts: TA4, TA21

Susan Levinge (LD)
Dave Mansell (Grn)
Phillip Thorne (C)

May 2015 result Ind 1081/1000 C 893 LD 439/226 Grn 346
May 2011 result Ind 1088/943 C 560
May 2007 result Ind 681/561 C 497/471 LD 270
May 2003 result Ind 748/728 C 366/277 LD 130
May 1999 result Ind 682/552 C 409 LD 243 Lab 144


Heyhouses

Fylde council, Lancashire; caused by the death of Conservative councillor Barbara Nash at the age of 66, having suffered a heart attack while visiting family in Scotland over the Christmas period. She had served since winning a by-election in July 2012.

Fancy a game of golf? Well, you’ve come to the right place. We are here in the town of St Annes on the Sea, a planned Victorian resort just to the south of Blackpool but definitely not part of it. Among the sand dunes here before the town was developed was the hamlet of Heyhouses, which overlooked a low-lying and rich agricultural area called Lytham Moss. Some of the sand dunes are still here in an area of open space: the southern end of the ward is taken up by the links course of the Royal Lythem and St Annes golf club, which is on the Open Championship rota and last hosted the tournament in 2012. (I was there.) Next to the Open course is the Blackpool South railway line, which is normally useless but is presently the only way into Blackpool by rail – that’s thanks to overrunning electrification work which has closed the line to Blackpool North.

In between the Moss and the golf course is Heyhouses’ ward’s population, formerly centred on a Government site off Heyhouses Road which was the original home of ERNIE, the random number generator which determined each month’s Premium Bond winners. ERNIE was transferred to Blackpool a few years ago and the government site is now being redeveloped for housing and a supermarket. Lytham St Annes is a popular place for North West people to retire to and so the population skews older than average, while the nearby aerospace factory at Warton provides high-paying jobs all year round.

So, a ward in a coastal area with a large retired population and a closed government site, going to the polls following the death of a councillor who was first elected in a July 2012 by-election. The parallels with Milford-on-Sea in Hampshire are uncanny. Here’s another one: this is a safe Conservative ward where the party was guaranteed a seat in 2015 due to insufficient opposition candidates. That year the Tory slate won with 47% to 31% for Labour and 22% for the Liberal Democrats. Barbara Nash’s widower Edward holds the local county seat, St Annes South, and had a large majority last year.

Defending for the Conservatives is another Nash: Sally Nash, daughter of Barbara and Edward. Lynn Goodwin returns for Labour after fighting the ward in 2015. Liberal Democrat candidate Andrew Holland has more recent electoral experience after fighting the local county division in 2017. Completing the ballot paper, and presumably hoping that ERNIE will draw his number out of the ballot box, is Green Party candidate and anti-fracking campaigner Ian Roberts.

Parliamentary constituency: Fylde
Lancashire county council division: St Annes South
ONS Travel to Work Area: Blackpool
Postcode districts: FY4, FY8

May 2015 result C 1260/1227/1063 Lab 843 LD 601
July 2012 by-election C 401 Ind 313 LD 163 Grn 150 UKIP 147 Integrity UK 25
May 2011 result C 839/723/681 LD 557/488
May 2007 result C 821/792/699 LD 643 Lab 332
May 2003 result C 763/752/699 LD 515/447 Lab 290


Caol and Mallaig

Highland council, Scotland; caused by the death of Scottish National Party councillor Billy MacLachlan. MacLachlan had first been elected to the Highland council in 1999, winning Claggan and Glen Spean ward unopposed as an independent candidate, but lost his seat in 2003; he returned to the council in May 2017 with the SNP nomination. Away from politics MacLachlan was well-known in the sport of shinty, having served Lochaber Camanachd Club as player, referee and administrator; the World of Shinty Facebook page described him as one of the game’s genuine characters in the modern era.

“It’s by Shiel water the track is to the west
By Ailort and by Morar to the sea.
– Traditional, The Road to the Isles

Let’s finish for the week with something completely different, for we are in the Highlands of Scotland. The Caol and Mallaig ward is larger than several European countries, containing almost 800 square miles of mostly inhospitable mountains. The mountains are cut through by glens and lochs and run down to the Atlantic coast, along which most of the local population lives.

This column earlier expressed some scepticism that Wiveliscombe could be described as a town given a population under 3,000, but that’s still bigger than any of the major population centres here. Caol (this is not pronounced “kale” but something closer to “curl”) is essentially a Fort William suburb located at the head of Loch Linnhe and the bottom of Neptune’s Staircase, a series of locks at the southern end of the Caledonian Canal. It and the nearby villages of Corpach and Banavie form the main population centre, accounting for just over half of the 7,071 electors. To the east the ward covers the southern half of the Great Glen along with the side valleys of Glen Spean and Glen Garry.

But it’s to the west of Caol that generations have journeyed along the Road to the Isles, through Glenfinnan to Arisaig, Morar and Mallaig, where the road and railway line terminate. The only way from here to the rest of the ward is by sea, whether it’s offshore to the Small Isles of Eigg, Muck, Rùm or Canna, or eastwards to Knoydart. Knoydart’s 98 electors may live on the Scottish mainland but they are cut off from the UK’s road network by impassable mountains and deeply indented sealochs; unless you fancy a 16-mile hike over very rugged terrain, the only way in or out is by boat to Mallaig.

The poor quality of the Road to the Isles, which was still single-track in places until as late as 2009, meant that the railway line to Mallaig survived the Beeching Report which had recommended it for closure. The line may still be open, but it runs at an enormous loss; so back in 1984 British Rail decided to encourage tourists by reintroducing steam on the Fort William-Mallaig route in summer. It was a success; no doubt helped by the train appearing in the Harry Potter films under the disguise of the Hogwarts Express, the “Jacobite” – as the service is now called – brings thousands of people to the area each summer.

An appropriate name, for this is the place where the 1745 Jacobite rebellion started. The Young Pretender landed on the mainland at Loch nan Uamh, near Arisaig, and raised his standard at Glenfinnan. Rumours have persisted for centuries that the Jacobite treasure is buried somewhere near Loch Arkaig, an offshoot of the Great Glen. The rising was of course eventually put down, but for many years afterwards the Highlands were essentially bandit country that tied the British Army down while it might have been doing something else. One of the figures who benefited from this was James Wolfe, who learned how to command a regiment here before finding fame at Quebec in the hour of his death.

Today the Highlands are politically the realm of the independent councillor. When this ward was created in 2007 it elected three of them, Bill Clark, Allan Henderson and Eddie Hunter. Those three councillors were all re-elected in 2012, an election where independent candidates had 81% of the first preferences between them. Hunter resigned in 2014 as he was moving away from the area, and his seat was held in the by-election by new independent candidate Ben Thompson. Clark retired at the 2017 election, and his seat went to the SNP’s Billy MacLachlan who became the ward’s first party political councillor since proportional representation was introduced. Henderson topped the poll with 28%, the SNP and Thompson had 24% each and runner-up was Lib Dem candidate Denis Rixson, some way behind on 9%.

The ward’s geography creates unusual challenges for electoral administrators. Rùm, Muck and Canna don’t have polling stations and their inhabitants traditionally vote by post. Knoydart and Eigg do have polling stations, but their ballot boxes will have to get on the boat to Mallaig for transport to the count in Caol. Under those circumstances it’s not surprising that the count for this by-election isn’t starting until Friday morning.

With over half the vote in this ward normally going to independent candidates, and the Alternative Vote being in use for this by-election, the SNP have their work cut out to hold this one. Their candidate selection doesn’t inspire confidence: Alex MacInnes, a native Gaelic speaker who works in the seafood industry, gives an address in a hamlet in Wester Ross, over 90 miles by road from Caol and 130 miles from Mallaig. In 2017 he fought his home ward of Wester Ross, Strathpeffer and Lochalsh. There are three independent candidates whom I shall take in alphabetical order. Ronald Campbell is from Glen Roy and stood for election to the Crofting Commission last year, coming in fifth and last in the South West Highlands constituency. Third in that election was Catherine MacKinnon, also from Glen Roy, who according to a press report of a hustings has 26 years of experience of working with and for public agencies and assisting individuals, businesses and communities throughout Lochaber. The remaining independent, Colin “Woody” Wood, is a crofter who runs a caravan park in Corpach. Returning from the 2017 election is Lib Dem candidate Denis Rixson, who has lived in Mallaig for more than 40 years; he is a former schoolteacher and bookshop owner. Completing the ballot paper is Conservative candidate Ian Smith, who is as far away from the ward as MacInnes is; Smith gives an address in Alness, Easter Ross.

Parliamentary constituency: Ross, Skye and Lochaber (most); Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey (small part)
Scottish Parliament constituency: Skye, Lochaber and Badenoch
ONS Travel to Work Area: Fort William
Postcode districts: PH31, PH33 to PH35, PH37 to PH44

Ronald Campbell (Ind)
Alex MacInnes (SNP)
Catherine MacKinnon (Ind)
Denis Rixson (LD)
Ian Smith (C)
Colin “Woody” Wood (Ind)

May 2017 result Ind 917 SNP 778 Ind 767 LD 304 C 265 Lab 181 Ind 30
May 2014 by-election Ind 932 SNP 724 Ind 537 UKIP 133 Christian 63; after transfers Ind 1176 SNP 881
May 2012 result Ind 905 Ind 710 Ind 506 SNP 411 Ind 71 C 66 Ind 60 Christian 45
May 2007 result Ind 975 Ind 881 Ind 550 Lab 473 SNP 389 Ind 188 C 156 Ind 151 Ind 100 Ind 64