As you would expect from a part of the world that has historically been represented by both Michael Heseltine and Boris Johnson, South Oxfordshire has traditionally been a solidly Conservative local authority. However, this Conservative dominance evaporated overnight in May 2019 when the Conservatives went from holding 33 out of 36 seats to a mere rump of nine seats, following a tidal wave of electoral defeats and the occasional defection. Although the 2019 local elections were especially poor for the Conservatives across much of the Home Counties, South Oxfordshire was an especially devastating defeat for the Party and was blamed on a combination of a long-running and unpopular emerging Local Plan and a Remainers’ revenge over Brexit (the District voted 55% Remain).
The 2019 election left no party holding more than 13 out of 36 seats with the Liberal Democrats as the largest party. They were required to find coalition partners in the Greens (who hold five seats) and since then the administration, firstly led by Sue Cooper and now David Rouane, has functioned reasonably effectively albeit there has been a fair amount of churn in Cabinet members. The council ended up adopting the controversial Local Plan it inherited from the Conservatives in December 2020 following the then Secretary of State Robert Jenrick issuing a holding direction to prevent the council from withdrawing the Plan.
The new administration in South Oxfordshire has subsequently started to progress a joint Local Plan with the Vale of White Horse District Council, the Liberal Democrat-led neighbouring authority which shares council offices with SODC. The leadership at South Oxfordshire has been generally supportive of a merger between SODC and the Vale Councils to create a new unitary authority, although this has been complicated by Oxfordshire County Council being taken over by a rainbow coalition of Liberal Democrats, Labour and Green councillors in May 2021. As you would expect from a Liberal Democrat/Green administration, there has been a strong focus on sustainability and biodiversity in Planning decision making.
The 2021 County Council elections did point to a small Conservative revival (compared to the nadir of 2019) with the Party winning areas like Goring, Thame and Benson which had voted Liberal Democrat in 2019. However the strength of the Liberal Democrats and the Greens in the areas close to Oxford City was again evident. The Conservatives will also look to build on recent progress in Didcot in the wards they are targeting.
The Liberal Democrats are fielding their local County councillor and Henley Parliamentary candidate, Freddie Van Mierlo, in Watlington ward and this looks like a plausible pick up opportunity from the Conservatives. The Greens will be largely focussed on expanding their political base in the wards bordering Oxford City Council. Meanwhile, Labour will be hoping to hold onto the Didcot South ward (where they currently have three councillors) but despite the Party’s strong national polling, opportunities outside of Didcot look limited.
In recent years, the town of Henley on Thames has become the domain of the Henley Residents Party and there is no reason to believe this dominance won’t continue.
This all adds up to a likely result which will probably be relatively similar to the 2019 election, albeit with a few seats shifting in different directions. While the Liberal Democrat/Green coalition is likely to continue, it is possible that the Conservatives may win enough seats to require a third Party (most likely Labour or the Henley Residents) to support the administration to ensure they have the numbers to continue.