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Local Elections Insights – Oxfordshire

18.04.24 | Written by Duncan Flynn

In the not too distant past, Oxfordshire was one of the strongest Conservative counties in the country – with Parliamentary constituencies represented by Conservative behemoths like David Cameron, Boris Johnson and Michael Heseltine. This national dominance was matched at a local level with Oxford City Council – typically an island of red surrounded by a sea of four deeply blue Conservative Districts.

This all changed with the local elections in May 2019 at which both South Oxfordshire and Vale of White Horse District Councils voted out their Conservative administrations. This process continued with the Conservatives losing control of Oxfordshire County Council in 2021 and West Oxfordshire in 2022. The last Conservative-controlled Council in Oxfordshire, Cherwell, fell into No Overall Control in May 2023. However rather than a Labour, Liberal Democrat and Green administration being formed, an acrimonious post-election disagreement developed resulting in the Conservative administration led by Barry Wood continuing albeit in a minority form. However, with the Conservatives badly languishing in the national polls and the Party defending 11 of its 20 seats in May, it is highly likely that a new administration will be formed in Cherwell. With Labour potentially the largest Party it is conceivable that a minority Conservative administration could be replaced by a minority Labour administration. In such a scenario, it is likely that the remainder of the Conservative group would support Labour in progressing the Local Plan review which is currently ongoing. As Cherwell has been more willing than most Oxfordshire districts to help provide Oxford City’s unmet housing need, continuity on the Local Plan will be important to many in the built environment sector. However, there will be changes of key personnel with current Cabinet Member for Planning, Dan Sames, standing down at the coming elections. Moreover, should Labour lead a minority administration, it remains to be seen whether current Labour Group Leader Sean Woodcock will take the leadership of the Council given that Woodcock is standing for Labour in the Banbury Parliamentary constituency which is likely to see a close contest between Woodcock and the Conservative Attorney General, Victoria Prentis. Regardless of the outcome of the General Election, it is highly likely that there will be no Conservative led local authorities in Oxfordshire after the 2nd of May.

In contrast with Cherwell, the Labour and Liberal Democrat groups in West Oxfordshire have worked together to form an anti-Conservative coalition (with the Green Party) since 2022. As the largest Party, the Liberal Democrats have taken the leadership of the Council through Andy Graham. Graham recently appointed Standlake, Aston & Stanton Harcourt ward councillor Charlie Maynard as the Executive Member for Planning. Maynard is also the Liberal Democrats’ Parliamentary candidate for Witney and is overseeing the progress of the Local Plan with the Regulation 19 consultation scheduled to take place before the end of this year. Planning in West Oxfordshire is rarely boring with the ongoing controversy of the “Clarkson’s Farm” planning saga bringing the work of West Oxfordshire’s Development Control Committee to the attention of the wider world.  With a number of marginal Conservative seats such as Witney South being defended on in May, there is the opportunity for both Labour and the Liberal Democrats to make further gains at this round of elections. However, it remains unlikely that the Liberal Democrats will make enough gains to win an outright majority.

A very different electoral contest takes place in Oxford City where the Conservatives have long been an irrelevance. One member is up for election in all 24 wards with the exception of Blackbird Leys ward which will elect two councillors. Labour is without a majority on the authority for the first time since 2010 following the defection of ten councillors to several Independent groups in late 2023 in protest to the Labour Party’s position on the conflict in Gaza. Labour’s Cabinet Member for Housing Linda Smith is up for election however will be standing in the Blackbird Leys ward this time around. Fellow Cabinet Member Anna Railton (Labour, Hinksey Park) who holds the Portfolio for Zero Carbon Oxford & Climate Justice is also standing for reelection, in addition to Planning Committee Chair Mary Clarkson (Labour, Marston). A further two Labour members and one Liberal Democrat member of the Planning Committee are all re-standing. Given the national picture, Labour is confident of winning back its majority which was lost to the defections, although Independent candidates will be hoping that concerns around Gaza and low traffic neighbourhoods may result in some upsets. However, it is hard to see Labour led by Susan Brown not winning an outright majority.

Local Elections Insights - Oxfordshire