What the local election results mean for planning

Changes in administrations at eight key councils following last week's local elections are likely to impact on planning and development, say commentators.

Residents for Guildford and Villages: the independent group won 15 seats on Guildford Council (pic: SURREY LIVE/DARREN PEPE)
Residents for Guildford and Villages: the independent group won 15 seats on Guildford Council (pic: SURREY LIVE/DARREN PEPE)

The Conservatives lost 1,334 councillors and control over a number of authorities in last week’s local elections, but Labour was also given a bloody nose in several places. While most commentary has focused on Brexit, planning issues were a major factor in many areas, helping propel residents’ groups, the Lib Dems and the Green Party to success. Below, Planning examines eight councils where planning and development are likely to be impacted by changes in political control.


Conservative to residents’ group control

In one of the election’s most dramatic results, in Uttlesford, north Essex, an independent residents’ association, Residents for Uttlesford, took control of the council from the Tories, having taken 17 seats from the incumbents. The Conservatives retained just four of the 23 seats they were defending. According to Martin Curtis, associate director at public affairs consultancy Curtin & Co, opposition to increased housing development in the council’s emerging local plan explains the shock result. In particular, the plan contains proposals for three new garden villages, including the 5,000-home North Uttlesford Garden Village, that the new leadership is likely to seek to jettison. "The residents group is fundamentally opposed to housing development," he said.


Conservative to no overall control

After the Lib Dems gained 12 seats, the party plus the Greens are set to take over South Oxfordshire District Council. The Lib Dems appear to have picked up support due to the party’s vocal opposition to the council’s local plan, which was passed by cabinet in December but has only just been submitted for examination. The Lib Dem campaign claimed the plan is "based on heavily inflated housing figures that won’t deliver the houses local people can afford" and said it should be withdrawn and redrafted using up-to-date housing need data. One unnamed consultant said the local plan is now likely to be withdrawn from examination.


Conservative to no overall control

The Conservatives lost control of Tandridge District Council for the first time since the turn of the millennium. Voters in the east Surrey district booted out six Tory councillors, including council leader Martin Fisher, who blamed opposition to the council’s emerging local plan plus the "chaos of Brexit" for the defeat. Catriona Riddell, strategic planning lead at the Planning Officers’ Society, said: "That was definitely a planning issue. It’s 94 per cent green belt and they proposed a 4,000-home community right in the middle of the green belt." The plan, currently undergoing examination, is bitterly opposed by the Oxted and Limpsfield Residents Group (OLRG), which succeeded in getting all six of its candidates elected. In a statement, OLRG said: "We have submitted more than 170 pages of evidence to the inspector with detailed proposals for rewriting the plan. We consider this is a particularly badly written local plan [that] sadly puts all of the Tandridge green belt at risk." While the Conservatives remain the largest group on the council, commentators say the loss of their majority means there are question marks over the plan’s future.


Conservative to no overall control

In Guildford, the Conservatives lost control of the Surrey borough council for the first time since 2003. The poll saw the party lose 22 of its 31 councillors, including deputy leader Matt Furniss and mayor Mike Parsons. According to Riddell, the green belt was again a critical factor. "The local plan proposes some significant removal of land from the green belt. It took a long time to get through and it was only successful two weeks ago." The Lib Dems, who gained nine seats, now represent the largest group on the council and have long campaigned against the local plan. However, the party does not have a majority and, given that the plan has just been adopted by the council, opponents will find it difficult to unpick it at this stage. Independent group Residents for Guildford and Villages, which campaigned on a brownfieldfirst policy, won 15 seats.


Conservative to no overall control

The Conservatives lost control of the Essex authority to no overall control, having only gained control following the local elections last May. The local plan, which was submitted for examination at the end of March, was a critical factor, say observers. David Scane, associate partner at communications consultancy Newgate Communications, said: "The issue of the local plan has stirred up considerable debate within Basildon over the past two years." It is not yet clear who will now run the council, but Labour, which gained two seats and is the second-largest party, campaigned on changing the draft strategy including its traveller policy. However, Scane doubts they will be able to take control: "It remains to be seen whether the Labour group will try and run the council in coalition with another group. Looking at the numbers, this would be very difficult."


Labour to no overall control

Wirral Council’s Labour administration lost its majority last week, principally for its proposals to develop green belt land for housing in the emerging local plan. The Merseyside council was one of three authorities last year threatened with intervention from the government for not having an up-to-date local plan. Scane said: "It appears that the Labour group has been punished by opponents of proposals to release land from the green belt, with the Green Party taking two Labour seats." Negotiations are ongoing between party leaders in Wirral. Labour is two councillors short of a majority and the Greens, who campaigned against green belt release, now have three councillors. Gaining Green support would be difficult for Labour without dropping or reducing green belt release in the local plan.


Conservative to Liberal Democrat

Chelmsford City Council in Essex is now under Lib Dem control after the party boosted its seats by 26 to overhaul a massive 45-seat Conservative majority. According to Curtis, the local plan, which is still undergoing examination, was a "pretty significant" factor in the campaign. "The process of putting it together was controversial and there was a lot of dissatisfaction among residents," he said. The Lib Dems did not campaign directly to change the local plan but did promise a fairer mix of housing tenures in new developments and to introduce a network of cycle paths and more electric vehicle charging points.


Conservative to no overall control

The Liberal Democrats are now the largest party on St Albans District Council after taking six seats from the Tories, including that of council leader Alec Campbell. Curtis said: "It’s another area where the local plan has been an issue. The council still haven’t got a local plan. It’s been kicked out a couple of times." The Lib Dems did not make any specific campaign pledges to change the plan, which was submitted for examination last month. However, they did promise to turn the council into a developer in its own right; include much-needed social housing on all new developments of a certain size; and ensure essential infrastructure is in place before people start moving in to new homes. Negotiations with potential coalition partners are ongoing, but the Lib Dems have said that they will run a minority administration if necessary.

Have you registered with us yet?

Register now to enjoy more articles and free email bulletins

Sign up now
Already registered?
Sign in

Join the conversation with PlanningResource on social media

Follow Us:
Planning Jobs