There have been lots of recent rumours that the upcoming local and mayoral elections will be delayed yet again and the PM has recently said that this will be ‘kept under review’. Given the Government’s recent track record for decision making, I don’t think anyone would bet against it happening again.
In addition to elections for candidates in 140 county councils, district councils and unitary authorities, there are 13 regional mayoral elections due including in Bristol, Liverpool, London, Manchester and the West Midlands to name a few.
We saw that it was possible for the 2020 US Presidential Election to take place, with over 150 million people voting using a combination of postal and in person ballots. I have no doubt it would also be possible to undertake the upcoming elections here – although it would be reasonable for the Government to provide additional funding to facilitate the large majority of people that would want to vote by post.
Many councils may not change hands as they elect in thirds, but we can’t have a situation where regional mayors are governing without a mandate over 12 months from when elections were due. That is to say nothing of the police and crime commissioners, who have rightly been put in the spotlight given instances of overzealous enforcement by police forces (e.g. Derbyshire). Thus far the electorate has not been able to hold them to account.
It is quite possible that a delay in the local elections may provide a boost in support for the Conservatives, as the vaccine rollout will coincide with the removal of lockdown restrictions and opening up of the wider economy. However, it has been a surprising feature of the last 9 months that the party’s poll ratings have largely held up, despite the numerous U-turns, and the Cromwellian cancellation of Christmas for many families.
It should be said that this would be the first election without the majority of traditional campaigning, such as door to door canvassing and leafleting. This means that the parties will be focusing on telephone and digital campaigning, which will no doubt impact on the results.
In Greater Manchester (GM) the delay in elections has meant that Stockport Council has remained under no overall control. As a result, it didn’t have the necessary votes to pass the Greater Manchester Spatial Framework, resulting in a potential lack of investment not only in the borough, but also across GM.
There will be considerable delays for the remaining nine local authorities to pursue a separate framework. There are also question marks around policing for Andy Burnham, although this is more an issue of accountability to the electorate than anything else. I don’t think anyone seriously believes he wouldn’t win a second term as mayor.
The elections for London’s mayor and assembly, initially scheduled for 2020, get closer and closer to elections for nearly all London council seats in 2021. The Conservative mayoral candidate Shaun Bailey would no doubt benefit from a further delay however, Sadiq Khan would still remain the favourite to win the contest.
The standard method u-turn means London will eventually be responsible for more than 93,500 homes a year. Political uncertainty in the capital’s boroughs can have a massive impact on the two-tiered planning system for the significant schemes needed to get anywhere near these numbers.
On the flip side in the West of England a further delay could breathe new life into North Somerset’s joining the West of England Combined Authority. This has been slowly spluttering into the ground, as a lack of government interest in agreeing a new financial settlement has not made it possible for Bristol’s leadership to back the expansion. May’s election had created a deadline for agreement which if postponed could change.
In West Yorkshire a delay in the mayoral election would cause a delay in delivery of key devolution priorities, that would have been overseen by the new mayor. Given the long process getting to this point with devolution in Yorkshire and the £1.8bn of funding in areas like transport and housing, it is vital that the elections happen so West Yorkshire can get on with delivering.
Given the level of planning required to hold the elections as planned in May in a Covid secure manner, each day that passes makes a decision to delay the votes more likely. As outlined above, any further delays are going to have an impact on investment and certainly of decision making, to speak nothing of the lack of democratic accountability. The Government needs to accelerate discussions with local authorities and make a decision on this issue now.
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