In most North Essex districts, the entire council will be re-elected on 4 May, rather than one third of members as elsewhere. This means wholesale changes of leadership could occur, especially with councils full of non-aligned Independents. Here’s a round-up of what could happen.
Maldon – who are these ‘Independents’?
Maldon has 31 council seats, all contested in a 4-yearly cycle.
The 2019 election resulted in 17 Conservative and 14 Independent councillors. There has been some turbulence since. A series of resignations and splits in the Conservative and Independent groups in 2022 resulted in 10 Tories, 3 non-aligned Tories, 11 Independents and 6 non-aligned Independents. Now, there are 14 Tories, 16 Independents and one Liberal Democrat. Tory Penny Channer leads a Conservative minority administration in loose coalition with Independents.
The Conservatives have struggled to find enough candidates and are only fielding 23 hopefuls for 31 seats. Until 2019 they held the majority here. The remaining hopefuls include four types of independents (some of whom are ex-Tories), 18 Liberal Democrats and a smattering of Labour and Greens.
Many Maldon residents hope for a more settled leadership, but won’t get it if one party can’t achieve the 16 seats needed for a majority, or independents decline to support the largest party.
Tendring – farewell to UKIP
The 48 members of Tendring Council currently comprise 21 Conservatives, 12 various independents, 6 Labour, 4 Tendring First, 2 Liberal Democrats, 2 Holland-on-Sea Group and 1 UKIP. Tendring was Labour in the 90s so the change is notable. Now it’s ‘no overall control’ with Tories the largest group.
Tendring, which includes Clacton, was a UKIP stronghold with 22 councillors in 2015, dropping to 5 in 2019. Since Brexit, UKIP members have gradually defected to the Tories, leaving just one: Peter Cawthron. Controversy surrounded him recently when accused of being the ‘worst councillor in the UK; racist, corrupt and dishonest’. He isn’t standing, leaving one UKIP candidate, but 4 for the Reform Party. Some Tory hopefuls, however, used to represent UKIP.
It is likely Tendring will again have a council of myriad parties – it is difficult to see one party gaining the 25 seats necessary for overall control. The area includes Jaywick, the UK’s most deprived area, so the next administration faces major challenges in housing and regeneration.
Braintree – will Wethersfield finish Tory rule?
The council is Conservative-controlled with 32 of 49 members. The opposition consists of Greens, Residents, Labour and Independents, but no Liberal Democrats at all, although they are fielding 11 candidates. Except for a handful of independents, most candidates represent the main national parties. Although all seats are up for re-election, substantial change – i.e. the Tories losing eight councillors – would be needed to alter control.
In a 2022 by-election, Labour took a seat off an Independent: clue to a potential Labour mini-surge?
One local issue which may influence voters is how the council has handled the Government’s plan to convert local Wethersfield Airfield into asylum seeker accommodation. The council applied unsuccessfully for an injunction against it, and those in Three Fields and Yeldham wards may vote according to their opinion on this, and of the council’s and local MP James Cleverly’s role in it.
Chelmsford – Liberal Democrat consolidation or Labour surge?
Essex’s county town, designated a city in 2012, is within London commuting distance. It attracts young city families seeking ‘the best of all worlds’: town amenities, close to London, yet near country living. Londoner influxes may affect voting more here than rural Essex.
Council control has long flip-flopped between Conservatives and Liberal Democrats. In 2015, the Tories took 52 of 57 seats. But in 2019, the Liberal Democrats gained 26 seats from them, taking control with 29 members. This was a surprise to many yet it’s hard to see the Tories pulling it back this year. They’re not even contesting all seats, whereas Liberal Democrats are fielding a full slate.
Electoral Calculus shows Labour potentially showing better at a general election, but it hardly features locally, and is fielding only 39 candidates. There are six ‘Independent Network’ and 11 Green Party hopefuls, and a few Taxpayers Association in South Woodham.
With Tories needing a challenging eight gains for a majority, outright change here is unlikely.
Uttlesford – do voters still want to fight development?
This leafy area containing Saffron Walden and Thaxted is interesting.
It was usually Conservative-run till 2019’s electoral earthquake. Residents for Uttlesford (R4U), a localist party seeking to give residents more say in planning, gained a majority with 26 seats of 39. Losing 19 councillors left the Tories with only four, and a very bitter taste in their mouths.
R4U pledged to reduce building development and Stansted Airport expansion. However, their refusal to grant the airport permission for growth was controversial, leading to the government stripping their planning powers. Further controversy came with changes and delays to the local plan, the draft of which will not appear till after May.
There was recent R4U turbulence when a standing councillor claimed he’d been deselected from his ward for “asking difficult questions”. R4U counterclaimed that it was related to “personal conduct”.
In the Great Dunmow by-election in January, Conservatives managed to regain one seat from R4U, and are hopeful of winning more this week. It will likely be a rancorous fight.
After May – less blue, more rainbow?
Essex has an unusual amount of splinter parties and independents, who sometimes control the balance of power. They often campaign on a single theme, for example local planning, which can mask their beliefs on other issues, or how they sit within the wider political eco-system. They may ally with the ruling group but often maintain voting independence, which makes getting policies through harder for minority administrations. It’s also difficult to push through an agenda if there is the constant possibility of defections from the ruling party (as in nearby Rochford when the Conservatives recently lost their majority after three defections.)
In some places, it’s been a challenge to find new Tory candidates, and indeed some habitual voters may be unwilling to vote at all after looking at their party’s recent record. May 4 will bring interesting results, particularly if the Conservatives lose 1,000 seats nationally as they’ve predicted. In Essex, the fallout from this dissatisfaction may not be as dramatic, but in some councils small changes are enough to alter the political colour to something more mixed.