Previewing the Tuesday council by-elections (28 Sep 2021)

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

There are two by-elections, for three seats, on Tuesday 28th September:

Brundall; and
Old Catton and Sprowston West

Broadland council, Norfolk. The double by-election in Brundall ward is caused by the resignations of Conservative councillors Rebecca Grattan and Michael Snowling. The by-election in Old Catton and Sprowston West ward is caused by the resignation of Samuel Walker.

Autumn is normally peak time for local by-elections, and the week ending 1st October is the busiest week so far this autumn with nine seats up for election. Three of these are polling on a Tuesday, because why not? It’s only tradition that by-elections have to be on a Thursday; any working day will do, and sometimes some other day of the week might be more convenient for everyone involved. In this particular case, Tuesday polls will allow the winners of these by-elections will be in place for Broadland’s full council meeting on Thursday. Don’t wait up all night for the results, as the counts will start at 1000 on Wednesday morning.

Broadland, Brundall

So it is that we travel on a Tuesday to two wards on the edge of the city of Norwich, although that description is not immediately obvious for the Brundall ward. Brundall itself is a large village (with 3,504 electors on the roll) on the north bank of the River Yare downstream of Norwich, and the ward named after it also includes three other parishes on the Yare. The Wherry Lines railway between Norwich and Lowestoft links the ward together, with stations at Brundall Gardens, Brundall, Buckenham and Cantley. There’s no railway station at Postwick, which is the main eastern point of entry for the Norwich built-up area and has a park-and-ride site for the city centre; Postwick is also the eastern terminus of the Broadland Northway, a dual-carriageway road around the north of Norwich which opened in 2018. The ward’s major employers include the British Sugar factory at Cantley, which has been processing sugar beet for more than a century.

Before the railway was built in the nineteenth century the River Yare was the main mode of transport here. This is one of the main waterways of the Norfolk Broads, and is navigable as far as Norwich. Much of the low-lying ground around the river is part of the Broads national park, and there is a boundary oddity here. For centuries the harbour authority for the Yare has been Norwich city council, which controls the river all the way down to the confluence with the River Chet at Hardley Cross, and one result of that is that the Norwich city boundary includes the River Yare upstream of Hardley Cross. Accordingly, the southern boundary of this ward is not with South Norfolk district on the far side of the river, but with the city of Norwich.

Broadland, Old Catton/Sprowston W

Boundary oddities of a different kind apply to the Old Catton and Sprowston West ward, which is to all intents and purposes part of the built-up area of Norwich but has never been formally incorporated into the city. Old Catton was once an agricultural area – Anna Sewell wrote her novel Black Beauty here in the 1870s – but became fashionable among the Norwich business classes following the laying-out of Catton Park in the late 18th century. This was the first major work of the landscape gardener Humphrey Repton, who was commissioned by two-time Mayor of Norwich Jeremiah Ives in 1788 after Ives had taken over the brand-new stately home of Catton Hall. Catton Hall still stands today but has been split up into apartments; much of Catton Park has been turned into housing estates, but some of it survives as a public park to this day. The area has seen strong population growth this century, thanks to the building of more housing in the Sprowston West part of the ward.

The Parliamentary boundaries in Norwich are rather saner than the Norwich city boundary, and Old Catton and Sprowston West ward is firmly part of the Norwich North parliamentary constituency. This traditionally-marginal seat has been represented since a 2009 by-election by Chloe Smith, who was the junior minister responsible for the Elections Bill which has passed its second reading in the Commons and is currently at the committee stage. However, Smith was transferred to the DWP in the recent reshuffle. Presumably a new minister will be taking the Elections Bill over.

One recent piece of news regarding the Elections Bill is a government proposal to amend the bill to change the electoral system for local and combined authority mayors, and for police and crime commissioners. The idea is to move from the supplementary vote (which has always been used to elect these positions, and has been legislated for by both Conservative and Labour governments) to first-past-the-post. This column is old enough to remember when electoral system changes were seen as important enough to require a public referendum, so it’s disappointing that the current government couldn’t even bother to have such a proposal ready for the second reading of the Elections Bill. It’s not an urgently-required change and it deserves to be properly considered in a second-reading debate. Although elections offices around the country will shudder at the thought of yet more legislation landing on their desks, perhaps having a separate bill for this electoral system change would be a neater way of doing things.

Broadland, 2019

The supplementary vote has never been applied to elections of local councillors in England, which have always been first-past-the-post. On the current ward boundaries (which were introduced in 2004), both Brundall ward and Old Catton and Sprowston West ward have always returned Conservative councillors, usually with lots of room to spare. At the last Broadland elections in May 2019 the Conservative slate won Old Catton and Sprowston West with 47% of the vote, against 20% for the Liberal Democrats and 18% for Labour. This ward has the same boundaries as the Old Catton division of Norwich county council, which in May this year had a 60-24 Conservative lead over Labour in second place. In 2019 the Conservatives carried Brundall ward with 41% of the vote, with Labour and the Greens disputing second place on 22% each; Brundall ward is part of another safely-Conservative county council division (Blofield and Brundall).

The Old Catton and Sprowston West by-election is to replace Samuel Walker, a young man who was in his first term on the council having been elected in May 2019. He is moving away from Norwich to take up a new job.

Similar considerations apply to the outgoing Brundall ward councillor Rebecca Grattan, who was also first elected in May 2019. In February 2020 Grattan relocated to Prague to take up a new job with Avast, the Czech cybersecurity firm. She was able to keep her position on the council because the recent public health emergency forced council meetings to take place virtually; there has been some controversy over this, mainly because Grattan was still drawing councillor allowances, but if everybody‘s dialling into meetings then realistically it makes little difference whether you’re dialling in from the Norfolk Broads or the Czech Republic. Once the provisions for remote council meetings expired in May this year Grattan’s position on Broadland council was no longer tenable, and she resigned at the end of July 2021.

Once that vacancy opened up, Brundall ward’s other councillor Michael Snowling also took the opportunity to leave the stage. Snowling had represented this ward since 1998, and he was appointed MBE in January 2009 for services to children and young people in Norfolk. No reason was given for Snowling’s resignation, but he has recently been reported to have been in poor health.

Defending the Brundall double by-election for the Conservatives are Tim Catmull and Michael Phelps. Catmull, who runs a children’s shoe shop in Norwich, had contested the Buxton ward of Broadland in the 2019 district elections, finishing two votes short of gaining the seat from the Lib Dems; Phelps, who appears to be standing for election for the first time, should not be confused with the serial Olympic gold medal-winning swimmer of the same name. The Labour slate consists of Alice Free and Glenn Springett: Free was the runner-up here in the Broadland elections two years ago, while Springett was the runner-up here in the Norfolk county elections four months ago. One those occasions Free and Springett both finished one position ahead of the Green Party’s Jan Davis, who returns for another go and is joined by running-mate Eleanor Laming. The Liberal Democrats put in nomination papers for three different candidates, but one of them has withdrawn leaving their slate of Eleanor Mason and Victor Scrivens to complete the Brundall ballot paper.

The same four parties contest the Old Catton and Sprowston West by-election. Defending this seat for the Conservatives is Richard Potter, a former military man with a prosthetic leg to show for his service. The Lib Dems have selected John Chettleburgh, a biker and automotive engineer according to his Twitter. Standing for Labour is Martin Booth, a retired osteopath who sat on Norfolk county council from 1989 to 2001; at the time he represented the very rural area of North Walsham, in one of the last gasps of the strong agricultural vote which Labour used to enjoy in Norfolk. Completing an all-male candidate list in Old Catton and Sprowston West is Ian Chapman for the Green Party.


Parliamentary constituency: Broadland
Norfolk county council division: Blofield and Brundall
ONS Travel to Work Area: Norwich
Postcode districts: NR7, NR13

Tim Catmull (C)
Jan Davis (Grn)
Alice Free (Lab)
Eleanor Laming (Grn)
Eleanor Mason (LD)
Michael Phelps (C)
Victor Scrivens (LD)
Glenn Springett (Lab)

May 2019 result C 814/720 Lab 441/385 Grn 427/295 LD 304
May 2015 result C 1672/1420 Lab 782 LD 692 UKIP 606
May 2011 result C 1314/1208 Lab 407/334 Grn 305 LD 286/236
May 2007 result C 1174/1111 LD 238/139 Grn 225/116 Lab 206/185
June 2004 result C 1214/1196 LD 508 Lab 434/348

Old Catton and Sprowston West

Parliamentary constituency: Norwich North
Norfolk county council division: Old Catton (same boundaries)
ONS Travel to Work Area: Norwich
Postcode districts: NR3, NR6, NR12

Martin Booth (Lab)
Ian Chapman (Grn)
John Chettleburgh (LD)
Richard Potter (C)

May 2021 county council result C 1420 Lab 580 Grn 227 LD 153
May 2019 result C 1024/985/962 LD 433/425/236 Lab 401/398/351 Grn 344
May 2017 county council result C 1356 Lab 418 LD 310
May 2015 result C 2107/2020/1661 Lab 1256/1017/901 UKIP 904 LD 528/483/300
May 2013 county council result C 796 UKIP 497 Lab 389 LD 362 Grn 119
July 2011 county council by-election C 664 LD 414 Lab 337 UKIP 107 Grn 75
May 2011 result C 1688/1493/1398 Lab 849/691 LD 439/350 UKIP 306
June 2009 county council result C 1206 UKIP 402 LD 334 Lab 267 Grn 262
May 2007 result C 1357/1288/1248 LD 574/553/529 Lab 480
May 2005 county council result C 1790 Lab 1456 LD 1019 Grn 217
June 2004 result C 1060/1022/1006 LD 779/753/692 Lab 497/477/439

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