Local elections in Uttlesford see the clash of two broad political trends which have up-ended the landscape at both local and national level – the rise of localist parties, and the collapse of the Conservative vote in opinion polls over the course of the current parliament.
The first of these trends has been the fragmentation of local politics in the south-east of England which has seen a raft of hyper-localist parties assume control of councils as a result of backlash against housing targets and fears related to Green Belt release and over-development. The 2019 elections saw the Residents 4 Uttlesford party clean up across the district, winning 26 out of 39 seats and reducing the Conservative total to just four, a loss of 19.
Promising to run the council in a transparent manner that prioritised the genuine concerns of residents over those of the traditional Westminster parties, hopes were high in the early days of the R4U administration. Having previously run Saffron Walden town council, R4U believe that they can position themselves as a competent, local alternative to the prior administration.
On planning issues at least, their path has been far from smooth. Uttlesford’s draft Local Plan was withdrawn in 2020 following scathing criticism from PINS regarding the plan’s housing delivery numbers. The draft plan had proposed 18,500 homes be built in three new garden communities, but the inspectors argued that they “cannot find the plan sound based on vague blurred annotations of broad locations”. Following further delays, including recent revelations of staff resigning from the planning department, the timeline for the plan’s ultimate adoption has been stretched.
More seriously, in 2022 Uttlesford was designated by the Government over the quality of its planning decisions, only the fourth local authority to ever receive this sanction. In particular, the Government focused on the fact that over 10% of major applications had been overturned at appeal from 2018-20. Applicants can now choose to bypass the district council entirely and submit applications directly to PINS.
A failed bid to prevent the expansion of Stansted Airport and a police investigation into the council (which ultimately led to no charges being brought) led to the resignation of council leader John Lodge in 2021, with his replacement Petrina Lees now tasked with defending R4U’s majority on 4 May.
Cllr Lees’ attempt to secure a second term for the party is where the second broad trend to be playing out in Uttlesford – the national collapse in the Conservatives’ vote-share – comes into play. Despite a rocky tenure since 2019, R4U are less likely to relinquish control of their majority than they would be had the Conservatives’ been in better electoral shape. At the Essex County Council elections in 2021, R4U managed to gain two of Uttlesford’s four council seats from the Conservatives, albeit with the Conservative vote-share recovering from the lows of 2019.
Given the Conservatives’ national polling has stabilised somewhat in recent months, the party may be hopeful of improved prospects in Uttlesford, which combined with the troubles of the R4U administration, could allow the Conservatives to reclaim some of the seats lost in 2019. Nonetheless, the severe headwinds which are still facing Rishi Sunak’s party mean that a small R4U majority with the Conservatives overtaking the Liberal Democrats as the official opposition is the likeliest outcome.