Previews: 21 Feb 2019

Two by-elections on 21st February 2019:


Oundle

Northamptonshire county council; caused by the resignation of the former Leader of the Council Helen Smith, who was elected as a Conservative but had been sitting as an independent. She was first elected in a 2007 by-election and was Leader of the Council from 2016 to 2018.

For our first by-election this week we have come to the exemplar of everything that is wrong in local government these days. Three weeks ago this column was in Warlingham, Surrey, covering a by-election to replace a former Surrey county council leader who had allegedly done a “sweetheart” deal with the government to save his council from insolvency. This should have been a wakeup call that there is only so far you can go with cuts to public services, and local government has borne the brunt of the cuts which have taken place over the last decade.

Instead the wakeup call came in February 2018, when Northamptonshire county council ran out of money and issued a Section 114 notice, banning all non-essential expenditure. Only two other councils had done that in the last thirty years. Central government was already concerned at the stories coming out of Northamptonshire, and had commissioned Max Caller, a long-serving council chief executive and former chairman of the Local Government Boundary Commission for England, to take a look at what was going on. Published in March 2018, the Caller report was scathing. To quote paragraph 4.4:

For a number of years, [Northamptonshire county council] has failed to manage its budget and has not taken effective steps to introduce and maintain budgetary control. Instead it has pursued an organisational structure and operating concept which made it difficult to ensure a line of sight over costs and operational activity. It did not accompany this structure with an articulated set of financial and managerial controls. This made it impossible for the council, as a whole; to have any clarity or understanding as to what was going on. [Northamptonshire] has relied on one-off items, allocation of balances, windfalls and laterally (sic) the use of capital receipts to balance the numbers at the year’s end. This is not budget management.

Caller concluded that there was no realistic way for Northamptonshire to get out of its financial mess, and recommended reorganisation in the county as the only sustainable way forward. Next year Northamptonshire county council and the seven district councils underneath it will be abolished, with two new unitary authorities created in their place. In advance of that reorganisation the 2019 Northamptonshire district council elections have all been cancelled.

In response to the Caller report, the commissioners went in from London to run the county, found that the council’s financial situation was even worse than first thought, and promptly issued another Section 114 notice. Ironically, they have only been able to balance the books for 2018-19 by selling the council’s headquarters building (which cost £53 million to build and had only been open since October 2017) and ploughing over £60 million in capital from the proceeds of that sale into delivering basic services. Anybody who mixes up capital and revenue like that shouldn’t be let anywhere near budgeting, and central government were only able to justify this move – a bailout in all but name – by pointing out that the county council will cease to exist in the not so distant future.

One has to wonder what the political leadership were doing while the good ship Northamptonshire was hitting the iceberg. Well, it appears that the previous administration’s major strategy was to save money with a radical outsourcing plan, which failed to work (Northamptonshire’s health and social services have been brought back in-house); together with constant moaning from the council leader Heather Smith about how the county’s government grant was unfair, and attempts by the administration to bury bad news. After the Section 114 notice was issued, 21 backbench Tory county councillors signed a statement saying that they were appalled by what was going on, and the county’s seven MPs – all of whom are Conservatives – weren’t happy either. The Caller report rendered Smith’s position untenable, and she resigned as leader; shortly afterwards she left the Conservative party as well. Now she has resigned from the council claiming that her presence on the backbenches serves no useful purpose, and complaining that she had been bullied by the Northamptonshire MPs. Given that on her watch we were left with the grotesque spectacle of a Tory council – a Tory council – going bust due to spending too much, and that the end result of her profligacy will be more distant local government for the residents of Northamptonshire, this column has no sympathy for Heather Smith.

Her division was Oundle, a large and deeply rural division covering most of the countryside between Corby, Stamford and Peterborough; despite being over the county boundary Peterborough is the main service centre for most of the division. The largest population centre within the boundaries is Oundle, a town on the Northampton-Peterborough road known for its public school; Oundle School, founded in 1556 by the Lord Mayor of London Sir William Laxton, is the third-largest boarding school in England (the only larger ones are Millfield and, inevitably, Eton), and its 1,100 or so pupils propel the Oundle ward into the top 30 in England and Wales for the 16-17 age bracket. Apart from some of the sixth form, those pupils will of course be too young to vote. Back in the day much of the division was covered by the royal hunting territory of Rockingham Forest, and there are many royal connections here with village names such as King’s Cliffe: within the boundary is the site of Fotheringhay castle, where Richard III was born and Mary, Queen of Scots was beheaded.

After all that historical and financial drama the by-election is likely to be rather an anti-climax, I’m afraid. This is a very Tory part of the world: Heather Smith had a 65-24 lead over Labour at her last re-election in 2013, and the Conservatives hold all of the district council seats within the area with similarly large majorities. Oundle is part of the Corby parliamentary constituency, which voted Labour at a 2012 by-election; but Corby is a starkly divided seat and this is part of the Tory bit of it.

Seeking to reverse the Conservatives’ defection loss is the wonderfully-named Annabel de Capell Brooke, who won a by-election to the Prebendal district council ward (within the division) in 2017 and lives on the same street in Nassington as Heather Smith. The Labour candidate is Harry James, who lives in the village of King’s Cliffe. Completing the ballot paper are Marc Folgate for the Liberal Democrats and Allan Shipham for UKIP.

Parliamentary constituency: Corby
East Northamptonshire council wards: Fineshade, King’s Forest, Prebendal, Oundle (part: Benefield and Oundle parishes)
ONS Travel to Work Area: Peterborough (most), Corby (Benefield parish)
Postcode districts: LE15, NN14, NN17, PE8, PE9

Annabel de Capell Brooke (C)
Marc Folgate (LD)
Harry James (Lab)
Allan Shipham (UKIP)

May 2017 result C 2608 Lab 956 LD 420
May 2013 result C 1849 UKIP 677 Lab 573 LD 225


Ely

Cardiff council, Glamorgan; caused by the death of Labour councillor Jim Murphy at the age of 72, A former steelworker, Murphy had served since 2012 and had been chairman of the council’s Appeals committee.

For our other by-election this week we return to south Wales. Last week Andrew’s Previews covered the Rhoose by-election, in which the Tories’ Andrew RT Davies AM was easily elected to Vale of Glamorgan council; this week we cross over the city limits into Cardiff. The Cardiff boundary goes up to the roundabout at Culverhouse Cross, on the A48 road towards Bridgend and Swansea; on the Cardiff side of the junction the A48 heads into the city as the Cowbridge Road West, and Ely division stands on the northern side of that road.

Cowbridge Road goes back to the Romans, but it was the coming of the railways that started to transform this area next to a bridge over the River Ely. The railway brought industry, with two breweries and one of Britain’s largest paper works quickly springing up. In 1922 the area was incorporated into Cardiff, and Cardiff council quickly filled the space between Ely Bridge and the Culverhouse Cross road junction with a large council estate of 3,500 homes.

This estate is the core of the modern Ely division. Ely has a bad reputation which has never really recovered from riots on the estate in the 1990s; it’s Cardiff’s most deprived electoral division, and in 2011 was in the top 60 wards in England and Wales for adults with no qualifications. As with many seriously-deprived areas, Ely’s most famous children made their names in entertainment or football: the legendary Wales and Manchester United player Ryan Giggs grew up here, as did a singer called Michael Barrett who is probably better known by his stage name of Shakin’ Stevens.

The current Ely division has existed since 1983 and has been safely Labour throughout that time, providing a political powerbase not just for Murphy but also for the former Cardiff council leader Russell Goodway, who has represented this division for many years. Plaid Cymru took over second place in the 2008 election; the last Welsh local elections were in 2017 at which the Labour slate polled 48%, to 25% for Plaid and 16% for the Conservatives. Ely is in the Cardiff West constituency which is Labour at Westminster and Senedd level; the current Labour AM for Cardiff West, Mark Drakeford, was recently elected as First Minister of Wales, following in the footsteps of his predecessor Rhodri Morgan.

We have head a lot this month about the retirement of one Humphreys from Cardiff who likes talking about politics, but the defending Labour candidate here is a different Humphreys from Cardiff who likes talking about politics: Irene Humphreys is a retired Unison rep and secretary of the Labour party’s Cardiff West branch. The Plaid Cymru candidate is Andrea Gibson who fought this division in 2017. The Conservatives have selected Gavin Brookman, a former parliamentary researcher; in a city with lots of quiz heritage (a team of Cardiff Lib Dems appeared on the first series of Only Connect, which is recorded in Cardiff) it’s appropriate that Brookman was a contestant in the 2016 series of the Radio 4 quiz Brain of Britain. Completing the ballot paper is Richard Jerrett for the Liberal Democrats.

Parliamentary and Assembly constituency: Cardiff West
ONS Travel to Work Area: Cardiff
Postcode district: CF5

Gavin Brookman (C)
Andrea Gibson (PC)
Irene Humphreys (Lab)
Richard Jerrett (LD)

May 2017 result Lab 1472/1380/1289 PC 786/745/622 C 509/507 LD 267/97/84 TUSC 64
May 2012 result Lab 1597/1481/1468 PC 791/776/767 C 237/236/230 Grn 115 LD 95/83/75
May 2008 result Lab 1273/1257/1048 PC 687/657/470 C 525/520/491 LD 248/241/208
June 2004 result Lab 1180/1136/1004 Ind 942/826 Cardiff Citizens 599 LD 543/352/331 PC 347
May 1999 result Lab 1809/1793/1452 LD 728/521/50 PC 531 C 513
May 1995 result Lab 2363/2200/2053 C 282/278/249 LD 231/202/198 PC 168
May 1991 result Lab 2448/2194/2144 C 687 LD 471/428/415
May 1987 result Lab 2361/2316/2207 C 842/819/798 All 810/791/762
May 1983 result Lab 2083/1926/1904 C 1031/1007/980