Previewing this week’s council by-elections in the North of England (02 Sep 2021)

“All the right votes, but not necessarily in the right order”

Three by-elections on 2nd September 2021, all in the North of England, with a Labour defence, a Residents defence and a free-for-all:

Park; and
Ryburn

Calderdale council, West Yorkshire; caused respectively by the death of Labour councillor Mohammed Naeem and the resignation of independent councillor Robert Holden.

Stott Hall Farm

We start this week on the wrong side of the Pennines, although only just, and with a sight which will be familiar to anybody who drives from Lancashire to Yorkshire regularly. After a long climb up the motorway from Milnrow, the M62 turns left then right into a cutting, passes a stone with a white rose marking the county boundary, runs under a footbridge carrying the Pennine Way, and suddenly the landscape opens out into wide and beautifully desolate moorland, sloping down to a reservoir on the left. The two carriageways separate, and travellers then pass one of the most famous landmarks in the north of England: the house in the middle of the M62. Stott Hall Farm, to give it its proper name, was saved from the motorway demolition men by a geological fault, which meant that a route around the farm was easier to build.

Calderdale, Ryburn

To the north of the motorway, the county boundary runs along the escarpment of Blackstone Edge to meet the head of the Ryburn valley. The River Ryburn runs east from Blackstone Edge to meet the Calder at Sowerby Bridge, and the Ryburn ward of Calderdale covers virtually all of its valley. The A58 Rochdale-Halifax road runs the length of the valley, whose main population centre is the village of Ripponden.

Calderdale, Park

Calderdale’s Park ward provides a complete contrast. Whereas Ryburn ward is full of wide open spaces, Park covers the tightly-packed Victorian terraces of western Halifax. In comparison to Ryburn, which is 96% White British and has something of a commuter demographic despite its relatively poor transport links (it is in the top 10 wards in Yorkshire for those employed in the financial and insurance sector, and has above-average education levels), Park ward is in the top 20 wards in England and Wales for those who have never worked or are long-term unemployed (23.1%), for those looking after home or family (12.8%), for Islam (64.7%), and for Asian ethnicity (68.0%, mostly of Punjabi heritage). It’s also in the top 30 wards in England and Wales for population aged under 16 (29.6%). It’s not too much of an exaggeration to say that Park ward is Halifax’s Pakistani ghetto.

The Calderdale metropolitan borough has two parliamentary constituencies, both of which are rather marginal. Park ward is in the Halifax constituency which has been Labour-held since 1964 with the exception of the 1983-87 Parliament, but has delivered a series of close results in the last decade. Labour held the constituency by 1,472 votes in the 2010 election, and by 428 votes in 2015 when the previous Labour MP Linda Riordan stood down. Holly Lynch was re-elected for a third term in 2019 with a reduced majority of 2,569; unusually for a target seat, the Conservative vote fell here in December 2019.

The Calder Valley constituency (which includes Ryburn ward) was a Conservative gain with a large majority in 2010. This large majority was rather deceptive, as the opposition vote was evenly split that year between Labour and the Liberal Democrats. That didn’t apply in 2017, when the opposition vote to a large extent lined up behind Labour and Craig Whittaker was re-elected for a third term with a majority of just 609 votes. In December 2019 Whittaker increased the Conservative vote share for the fourth election in a row and took the seat to the edge of safety, with a 5,774 majority over Labour.

One of the unsuccessful candidates for the Calder Valley seat in 2017 was Robert Holden, who stood as an independent candidate, polled 1,034 votes and lost his deposit. Holden had been elected in 2014 as a Conservative councillor for Ryburn ward, but left the party a couple of years later after blowing the whistle over irregularities in the local party’s accounts. He sought re-election to Calderdale council in 2018 as an independent candidate, lost his seat by 149 votes, but convincingly got it back in 2019: the vote shares that year were 50% for Holden and just 28% for the Conservatives. That was a very unusual result in what is normally a safe Conservative ward. In May this year, without Holden on the ballot, the Conservatives held Ryburn with 47% against 22% for another independent candidate and 21% for Labour.

Calderdale, 2021

Park ward is normally safe Labour – it has returned Labour candidates at every election since 2004 with the exception of a Lib Dem win in 2008 – but can also be electorally volatile. This is volatility of a different kind, depending rather less on the national scene and more on intangible variables like the ethnicity of the candidates and what’s going on in the mosques at the time. You often see this sort of thing in strongly-Asian Pennine wards.

A look at the last three elections here serves to make the point. In 2018 Labour candidate Mohammed Naeem won Park ward with 57% of the vote, independent candidate Surraya Bibi (a former Labour figure who was reportedly unhappy with the party’s selection process) coming in a strong second with 35%. The Conservatives, whose candidate here that year was serving ex-UKIP Yorkshire MEP Amjad Bashir, finished a poor third with just 5%. In 2019 Labour’s Faizal Shoukat crushed the opposition, polling 87% of the vote as he was re-elected for a third term. In May this year Labour councillor Jenny Lynn was also re-elected for a third term, polling 61%; the second-placed Conservatives substantially improved to 33% with their candidate Shakir Saghir, who has made a number of attempts on this ward under a variety of political labels (normally Conservative, but he was the English Democrats candidate here in 2006).

Wild swings indeed. And if we go back long enough here, another source of electoral volatility comes into play. In the 1975 Calderdale local elections the area of the modern Park ward was covered by the former St John’s ward, which was the scene of a howler by the counting team who accidentally overlooked one of the ballot boxes. Once the mistake was discovered the following day, the returning officer was upfront about the error: the votes in the missing box were counted, and it was found that they didn’t change the winner of the election.

The Park by-election arises from the death in July of Labour councillor Mohammed Naeem, who represented St John’s ward from 1989 to 1992; after some decades away, he returned to the council in 2018. Much of Naeem’s career was spent working for racial equality organisations in Halifax, Bradford and Rochdale.

Naeem was part of the Labour majority on Calderdale council. Labour gained overall control here in 2019 and currently hold 27 seats plus this vacancy, with the opposition consisting of 15 Conservatives, 5 Lib Dems, two independents and Holden’s vacant seat.

Defending Park ward for Labour is Mohammed Shazad Fazal, who may be the same Mohammed Shazad Fazal who was the Liberal Democrat candidate for this ward in 2007, 2010 and 2011. We have another returning figure for the Conservatives: Naveed Khan fought this ward in 2011 and 2019, and stood in the neighbouring Town ward in May. Also standing are Jacquelyn Haigh for the Green Party and Javed Bashir for the Lib Dems. Whoever wins will not be off the campaign trail for long as they will be due for re-election in May.

The Ryburn by-election is to replace independent councillor Rob Holden. Holden has been suffering from depression for some years without seeking treatment for it, until in June he attempted to take his own life. He has stepped down from the council to seek a recovery away from the public eye. This column wishes Holden well for the future.

There is no independent candidate to succeed Holden, so we have a free-for-all in Ryburn ward! On paper his seat should revert to the Conservatives who have selected Felicity Issott; she is a Ripponden parish councillor, representing Barkisland ward, and works as a science teacher. Labour have reselected Leah Webster, who finished third here in May. Completing the ballot paper are two more returning candidates from May, Freda Davis for the Green Party and Pete Wilcock for the Lib Dems.

Park

Parliamentary constituency: Halifax
ONS Travel to Work Area: Halifax
Postcode districts: HX1, HX2, HX3

Javed Bashir (LD)
Shazad Fazal (Lab)
Jacquelyn Haigh (Grn)
Naveed Khan (C)

May 2021 result Lab 2375 C 1297 Grn 124 LD 100
May 2019 result Lab 3518 C 268 Grn 160 LD 90
May 2018 result Lab 2800 Ind 1742 C 245 Grn 143
May 2016 result Lab 2734 Ind 637 C 252 Grn 104 LD 97
May 2015 result Lab 4183 C 980 LD 299 Grn 268
May 2014 result Lab 2762 C 1281 Grn 206 LD 135
May 2012 result Lab 2657 C 838 LD 651
May 2011 result Lab 2353 LD 1272 Ind 444 C 416
May 2010 result Lab 2381 LD 1856 C 1196
May 2008 result LD 1838 Lab 1678 C 489 Ind 442
May 2007 result Lab 1500 Respect 1147 LD 1022 EDP 567
May 2006 result Lab 1339 LD 971 Ind 668 C 510 Ind 273
June 2004 result Lab 2377/2346/2264 C 2035/1820/1701 LD 994/892/721 Ind 595 Red and Green 343/300/274

Ryburn

Parliamentary constituency: Calder Valley
ONS Travel to Work Area: Halifax
Postcode districts: HD3, HX4, HX6

Freda Davis (Grn)
Felicity Issott (C)
Leah Webster (Lab)
Pete Wilcock (LD)

May 2021 result C 1785 Ind 848 Lab 798 Grn 207 LD 85 Reform UK 51
May 2019 result Ind 1852 C 1043 Lab 413 Grn 237 LD 144
May 2018 result C 1451 Ind 1302 Lab 805 LD 131 Grn 98
May 2016 result C 1258 Ind 1161 Lab 820 Grn 174 LD 131
May 2015 result C 3221 Lab 1382 UKIP 757 Grn 400 LD 380
May 2014 result C 1513 Lab 791 Grn 482 LD 186
May 2012 result C 1253 Lab 944 Grn 349 LD 229
May 2011 result C 1896 Lab 1089 Grn 300 LD 292
May 2010 result C 2687 Lab 1559 LD 1418 Grn 291
May 2008 result C 1667 LD 908 Lab 502
May 2007 result C 1570 LD 768 Lab 541 BNP 256
May 2006 result C 1338 LD 782 Lab 744
June 2004 result C 1800/1711/1457 LD 1137/991/876 Lab 1059/608/596

Wilmslow Dean Row

Cheshire East council; caused by the resignation of Residents of Wilmslow councillor Toni Fox.

In satellite towns
There’s no colour and no sound
– Doves, Black and White Town

The Doves have a lot to answer for. If you hear their song Black and White Town, and particularly if you watch the video, you might have trouble parsing that the satellite town they are actually from is Wilmslow.

Yes, that’s the Wilmslow which is possibly the richest town in the north of England. Located at the southern end of Manchester’s built-up area, Wilmslow is a classic commuter town from which the stockbrokers of Manchester go to work on the train while the Real Housewives of Cheshire buy designer clothes in the local charity shop. I’m not exaggerating much. Almost the whole of the town is within the 10% least-deprived census areas in England, and Wilmslow has the busiest Aston Martin dealership in the UK and some of the most expensive housing in the north-west. The median property in Dean Row ward, the eastern end of the town north of the River Bollin, will set you back at least half a million pounds, and you’ll be shelling out significantly more than that if you want to live in Dean Row itself.

Cheshire East, Wilmslow Dean Row

You’ll be shelling out even more if you want to buy 43 Adlington Road, a five-bedroom semi-detached house in Dean Row ward which was placed on the market earlier this year for £1.1 million (link). From 1949 this house was owned by the mathematician Alan Turing, who died here in 1954 from cyanide poisoning at the age of 41. Turing is possibly the most illustrious in a long list of rich and/or famous people who have lived in Wilmslow over the years; even the local MP, Tatton’s Esther McVey, is a TV star. It says something that Wilmslow High School gave us not just the Doves but also The 1975, whose lead singer Matty Healy is the son of the actors Tim Healy and Denise Welch.

Rather a contrast with the area immediately to the north of Wilmslow. Although this is outside the boundary of Dean Row ward and in that sense off-topic, we can’t visit the Wilmslow area without mentioning the critically-acclaimed satirical drama that is Handforth Parish Council Planning and Environment Committee. If by some mischance you have not yet seen this video, go get yourself a drink and some popcorn and settle down. If you have seen this video before, do the same thing.

When your columnist first saw that video at the start of February it had under 2,000 views and was clearly going viral then. Seven months on, what has happened in Handforth since? Well, there has been a bit of a clearout on this notoriously dysfunctional council. Brian (“you have no authority”) Tolver has been replaced as chairman by John (“the fact that there were no meetings held is irrelevant”) Smith. Contrary to some press reports, Tolver is still a Handforth councillor, but Aled “read the standing orders” Brewerton and Barry (“where’s the chairman gone”) Burkhill have both resigned from that council. The vacancy discussed in the video, following the disqualification of Jean Thompson for not attending any meetings in six months (“the fact that there were no meetings held is irrelevant”) was filled at a by-election in May by John Smith’s wife Julie. No by-election was called to replace Burkhill and the council have co-opted another councillor allied to Smith, Kerry Sullivan, to replace him. A by-election to replace Brewerton took place in July in West ward and was won by Sam Milward. And Handforth Parish Council now longer exists under that name: the parish has rebranded itself as Handforth Town Council as of the end of July, and John Smith will become the Mayor of Handforth. It would appear that his faction has won the war.

Mind, Handforth Town Council may not last for very long in that form. Cheshire East council, which as the principal council for Wilmslow and Handforth ultimately has some responsibility for this mess, is in the middle of a review of its parish structure. One of their proposals is to abolish Handforth parish altogether with Wilmslow town council taking over the area’s governance.

Handforth’s two representatives on Cheshire East council are Barry Burkhill and Julie Smith. At the time of the video Burkhill was Mayor of Cheshire East. A number of complaints against his conduct as mayor were made on the strength of that video, but he was close enough to the end of his mayoral term that Cheshire East council were able to kick the matter into the long grass until it was too late to do anything.

Ches E, 2019

One suspects that the arithmetic in Cheshire East may have had something to do with that inaction. Burkhill, who has represented the ward since 2011 for the Handforth Ratepayers Independent slate, sits in the main independent group on the council which takes in a number of other councillors elected on residents’ tickets, including the Residents of Wilmslow party. (Julie Smith, who was elected as an independent, is non-aligned on Cheshire East council.) A controversial Conservative administration lost its majority in Cheshire East in 2019, and the Labour group are now running the council in coalition with the main independent group. That coalition has little or no majority, and in early 2021 they were a man down following the death of Crewe Labour councillor Brian Roberts and the COVID-enforced cancellation of the April 2020 by-election to replace him.

The ruling coalition is also one down at the moment following the resignation of Toni Fox, who has represented Wilmslow Dean Row ward since 2015 for the Residents of Wilmslow. Fox, who was a Cheshire East cabinet member with the planning portfolio, is relocating to Shropshire. She gained her seat from the Conservatives in 2015 with a narrow majority of 50 votes, and was re-elected in 2019 by the much wider margin of 69% to 31% for the Conservatives.

Defending for the Residents of Wilmslow is Lata Anderson; she is a Wilmslow town councillor. The Conservatives have reselected Frank McCarthy who stood here in 2019; he is the vice-chairman of Wilmslow town council. The 2015 and 2019 elections here were straight fights; this time there is more choice for the local electors, thanks to the nominations of James Booth for the Green Party and Birgitta Hoffmann for the Liberal Democrats.

Parliamentary constituency: Tatton
ONS Travel to Work Area: Manchester
Postcode district: SK9

May 2019 result Residents of Wilmslow 930 C 409
May 2015 result Residents of Wilmslow 1189 C 1139
May 2011 result C 1072 Lab 262 LD 229


If you enjoyed this preview, there are many more like it – going back to 2016 – in the Andrew’s Previews books, which are available to buy now (link). You can also support future previews by donating to the Local Elections Archive Project (link).

Andrew Teale