‘Powerful lesson’ to politicians that our countryside matters… but Kent doesn’t witness dramatic change

Yes, people do care about the countryside (pic James Stringer)

Now the dust has settled from May’s local elections, we can reflect on some dramatic changes across the South East’s political landscape, even if Kent was not as affected as some of its neighbours.
Such was the widespread shift in allegiances that the London Green Belt Council was moved to comment: “One of the lessons of [the] local elections is that voters place greater emphasis on protection of the environment than on almost any other issue.
“According to research by the LGBC, the ruling groups in local authorities that allocated Green Belt countryside and green spaces for housing development in their Local Plans have been decisively punished by the electorate for doing so.
“Analysis by the LGBC of [the] council elections shows that where authorities had proposed development on Green Belt land, the ruling party in each case had been voted out of office or its majority substantially reduced.
“While in other parts of England, Brexit and other national issues may have determined the course of the recent elections, it is clear that in counties such as Surrey, Berkshire, Essex and Hertfordshire, which are within the London Metropolitan Green Belt (LMGB), the outcome of district and borough councils had been influenced more by communities’ anger at proposals to build housing estates on Green Belt land than by any other concern.”
It was in Surrey, perhaps politically the bluest of counties, that the swing was most striking.
The Conservatives, the ruling party in the majority of the county’s district and borough councils, lost 117 councillors (out of 1,269 losses in total), meaning Surrey accounted for almost 10 per cent of all Conservative losses in May’s local elections.
Throughout England the Conservatives lost control of 41 councils, six of them in Surrey.
According to the LGBC, the Conservative electoral performance was worst in the three Surrey districts where the Local Plans threatened Green Belt land for housing: Tandridge, Guildford and Waverley.
In each of these areas, Conservatives lost control of the local councils to residents’ associations, local campaign groups and independent candidates opposed to the Local Plans and who were pledged to defend the Green Belt from development.
In Guildford, the newly-formed Guildford and Villages group, which stood on a platform of defending the Green Belt, won 15 seats, and an existing local party, the Guildford Greenbelt Group, won an additional seat, giving them a total of four.
This, together with the seats won by the Liberal Democrats and the Greens, almost all taken from the Conservatives, resulted in a reduction in the number of Conservative councillors from 31 to nine.
The defeated council leader admitted that concerns about building on the Green Belt had been crucial in determining the outcome.
Hertfordshire saw the Conservatives lose control of three district councils – North Hertfordshire, St Albans and Welwyn & Hatfield – due to opposition to Local Plans proposing loss of Green Belt. In each of these districts there could have been even greater losses had the whole council been up for election.
In Kent, although the Conservatives suffered some losses, there was nothing like the groundswell of change experienced in neighbouring counties. That might be something to think about.
Richard Knox-Johnston, chairman of the London Green Belt Council and CPRE Kent vice-president, said: “The electorate punished the ruling party in boroughs and districts where they wanted to build housing estates on Green Belt countryside.
“In the local elections, dozens of pro-Green Belt councillors were elected in Tandridge, Guildford and Waverley, overturning once-impregnable Conservative majorities.
“There is a powerful lesson here for all political parties in London and the Home Counties that tampering with the boundaries of the Green Belt will result in further losses of councils to independent and single-issue Green Belt campaign groups.
“Proposals to remove land from the Green Belt in order to build on it are always extremely unpopular, as people rightly value and cherish their access to countryside and open spaces.
“In the cases of Tandridge, Guildford and Waverley, it is clear that the Green Belt has become a major election issue, with profound consequences for the ruling party.
“The elections prove that the environment is a ‘hot issue’ in many areas. Local Plans should protect the Green Belt and should concentrate new development on urban and brownfield sites in need of regeneration.”

Monday, June 17, 2019

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