Against the backdrop of recent seismic political events, the May 2019 Local Elections feel like a distant memory. However, the implications of national political apathy towards the main parties are being felt on a daily basis in the world of local politics.
As the results came in, many were shocked at the extent to which Residents’ Association and Independent candidates won seats in large swathes across the home counties. In total candidates of both persuasions won 798 seats and gained control of three councils.
These groups are important in order to foster a sense of checks and balances against the chosen ruling party to ensure they continue to place residents’ issues at the heart of local government. But how will they fair given a chance that they are now in control of some councils?
Many in local government will be familiar with the case of Epsom and Ewell Borough Council, a council that has been run by a residents’ association since the 1930s. In May 2019 the ruling party gained a further six councillors, tightening their control of the Council and their hold over the claim as the most successful residents’ association in the country. However, this has not always been to the benefit of the borough. It was recently announced by MHCLG that Epsom and Ewell Borough Council were at risk of designation after losing three major housing appeals in less than two years. This would mean that any development of over 10 residential units would be decided upon by a Government planning inspector instead of the Council. Whilst the councillors are clearly supporting the residents who are fed up with large scale developments, losing their planning powers will effectively take away one of the main motivations behind voting for third party candidates.
This acts as a cautionary tale to some of the councils that have recently moved towards resident-led governance. Councillors in Waverley and Guildford must ensure that they overcome the inevitable teething issues associated with new leadership and make sure they do not take planning decisions lightly and risk designation. Waverley Borough Council is already at risk of having its housing targets imposed by central government if the council losses the current Judicial Review of its Local Plan. The same applies in Guildford where three Judicial Reviews have been brought against the adopted Local Plan.
A balance must be struck between listening to those residents who are clearly against further housing development and realising a pragmatic and realistic approach to planning that allows the council to maintain its power of choice. The question remains, are residents’ associations just a place for the politically homeless or can they deliver in a new way on their promises of placing the residents’ concerns at the forefront of local government?