Previewing the council by-elections of 30 Sep 2021

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

Before we start this week, I am proud to make the following announcement:

Andrew’s Previews 2020

Andrew's Previews 2020

The fifth annual paperback collection of Andrew’s Previews is now available for purchase! Much shorter than previous year’s editions for obvious reasons, this is a printed book containing all of last year’s by-election columns (with some edits and updates), together with previously unpublished material. We have contemporary discussions of local by-elections as the majority Johnson government delivers Brexit and the stormclouds gather, and break. Some electoral action did take place in the UK last year despite everything, and it’s all described here. Andrew’s Previews 2020 will make an excellent present for the psephologist in your family, and you can get it here.

In case you’re not yet sold, Andrew’s Previews 2020 has a lot of pieces like the ones below. We have six by-elections to cover today, Thursday 30th September. This may have been Labour conference week, but the party has few obvious targets today with one seat to defend. There are three Conservative defences and one free-for-all to be discussed later, but we start in Kent with a seat the Liberal Democrats will be trying to get back…

Priory

Swale council, Kent; caused by the resignation of councillor Benjamin A Martin, who was elected for the Liberal Democrats but sitting as an independent.

Swale, Priory

It’s the last day of September, and the big ship sails on the alley-alley-o; so it’s appropriate to end the month by starting in an old port. On a creek off the Swale, which separates the Isle of Sheppey from the Kent coast, can be found the town of Faversham which was quite an important port back in the day. In mediaeval times Faversham was a junior member of the Cinque Ports, as a limb of Dover, and before that it was an important stopping-point on the Roman road from the Channel and Canterbury to Londinium. Many pilgrims would have passed through here on the way to Canterbury and the shrine of Thomas Becket.

In England, important mediaeval towns often had a religious institution or two, founded by and enjoying the patronage of kings and nobles. Faversham was particularly favoured by King Stephen, who founded the Cluniac Faversham Abbey in 1148, during the Anarchy. Stephen’s wife Queen Matilda, who was countess of Boulogne in her own right, was buried in Faversham Abbey in 1152 and Stephen himself was interred there two years later. Unfortunately they are not lying in eternal rest: their graves were disturbed when Faversham Abbey was demolished, and a 1964 excavation found their tomb to be empty.

One of King Stephen’s last acts was to found another religious house in Faversham. Davington Priory was established in 1153 as a nunnery, under the Benedictine rule. The priory became defunct when its last nun died at the time of the dissolution of the monasteries, but some of its buildings survive today. The priory church’s nave is still in use as a parish church, and part of the cloister was converted into a house which was bought in 1982 by Bob Geldof. Geldof was reportedly still living in Davington Priory in 2013, and his many honours include the freedom of the Borough of Swale, which the council awarded him in 1986.

The grounds of the former Davington Priory have long been swallowed up into the town of Faversham. In more modern times this area was the centre of the British explosives industry, but the gunpowder factories were all closed in the 1930s as they were too close to the Continent. That left brewing as the town’s longest-standing industry: Shepherd Neame claims to be the UK’s oldest brewery still in production, with an official foundation date of 1698.

Faversham is divided into four electoral wards, of which Priory is the northern one. The present ward was created by a boundary review in 2015 but has effectively the same boundaries as the Davington Priory ward which existed before then. In the 2011 census Davington Priory’s population was 96.5% White British, which is nothing special on the national level but was the second-highest figure for any ward in Kent; the ward also has high levels of social renting and a working-class demographic profile.

Swale, 2019

This doesn’t translate to a Labour-voting ward. Swale council does have a decent-sized Labour group these days, but most of the party’s councillors represent wards in Sittingbourne or Sheerness. Instead, Faversham is the district’s Liberal Democrat hotspot. The Lib Dems’ Michael Henderson gained Davington Priory ward from the Conservatives in 2008, was re-elected as a Lib Dem in 2011, and won a third term in the renamed Priory ward in 2015 as an independent candidate without Lib Dem opposition. Henderson stood down in 2019 and his seat went back to his old party; the new Lib Dem candidate Benjamin A Martin won with a 52-29 lead over the Conservatives. I have given Martin’s full name and middle initial here because there were two Faversham Lib Dem councillors both called Ben Martin, and the other one (who represents Watling ward, and is the leader of the council’s Lib Dem group) is still in situ.

The 2019 Swale elections saw the Conservatives lose their majority, and a Labour-led rainbow coalition was put together to run the council. That coalition currently controls 25 seats on the council (10 Labour, 10 Swale Independents, 3 Lib Dems and 2 Greens) plus this vacancy, with the opposition consisting of 17 Conservatives, three independents and a councillor who was elected as UKIP and is now in Reform UK. There was a by-election in May in Sheerness ward, which the Conservatives gained from Labour; also in May we had the Kent county council elections, in which the Lib Dems increased their majority over the Conservatives in Faversham division.

Defending this by-election for the Lib Dems is Michael Henderson, who has extensive electoral experience in this ward: he first stood here in 1988 for what was then the Social and Liberal Democrats, and he represented Davington Priory from 1992 to 2000 and again from 2008 to 2019. As stated above, Henderson’s last re-election was as an independent, but he is now back in the Lib Dem fold. He is up against another candidate with a long history in the ward: the Tories’ Andy Culham, who lost here in 2011, 2015 and 2019 and was also the unsuccessful Conservative candidate for Faversham in May’s county elections. Completing the ballot paper are Frances Rehal for Labour and Viv Moore for the Green Party.

Parliamentary constituency: Faversham and Mid Kent
Kent county council division: Faversham
ONS Travel to Work Area: Canterbury
Postcode district: ME13

Andy Culham (C)
Michael Henderson (LD)
Viv Moore (Grn)
Frances Rehal (Lab)

May 2019 result LD 382 C 215 Lab 86 Grn 55
May 2015 result Ind 610 C 356 Lab 196 Grn 61
(Previous results for Davington Priory ward)
May 2011 result LD 360 C 256 Lab 145 Grn 60
May 2008 result LD 495 C 235 Lab 121
June 2004 result C 429 Lab 224
May 2002 result C 414 Lab 254

Horndean Downs

East Hampshire council; caused by the resignation of Conservative councillor Tony Denton.

E Hants, Horndean Downs

For our other by-election in the South East we come to an area of much more recent vintage than Faversham. The village of Horndean can be found at the northern end of the Portsmouth-Havant urban area, running along the A3 dual carriageway towards Petersfield and London. Horndean has seen large population growth in the last few decades, and some of this has been concentrated in a large and rather isolated housing development to the west of the A3, north of the original village and running seamlessly into the village of Clanfield to the north. The dual carriageway forms a hard eastern boundary to the estate and ward, and the open ground on the far side of the A3 is now part of the South Downs national park.

This area became a ward of its own in 2003 under the name of Horndean Downs, having previously been associated with the village of Catherington to the west. Horndean Downs was Liberal Democrat at its first election in 2003, but the Conservatives gained the ward in 2007 by a 9-vote majority and have now made it safe. In May 2019, on slighlty revised boundaries, Horndean Downs gave 53% to the new Conservative candidate Tony Denton, 19% to independent candidate David Alexander (who had also finished second here in 2015, on that occasion with the UKIP nomination) and 16% to the Green Party. Horndean Downs is part of the Conservative majority on both East Hampshire council and Hampshire county council; the local county division (Catherington) was safe Conservative in May.

This by-election is caused by the resignation of Tony Denton from East Hampshire council for the second time in five years. He had been elected in 2015 as a Conservative councillor for the neighbouring Clanfield and Finchdean ward, but didn’t last a year before resigning due to pressure of work; a by-election for his previous seat was held in May 2016. Denton returned to East Hampshire council in 2019, representing this ward. Then in May 2021 he was elected to the neighbouring Havant council, gaining his seat from UKIP, and subsequently joined that council’s cabinet. He has presumably stood down from East Hampshire council to concentrate on his new elected role.

Defending for the Conservatives is Jonathan Whtifield. Independent candidate David Alexander is back for another go after two second-place finishes. The Green Party have selected Blossom Gottlieb, a writer, podcaster and Petersfield town councillor, who completes the ballot paper.

Parliamentary constituency: Meon Valley
Hampshire county council division: Catherington
ONS Travel to Work Area: Portsmouth
Postcode district: PO8

David Alexander (Ind)
Blossom Gottlieb (Grn)
Jonathan Whitfield (C)

May 2019 result C 425 Ind 151 Grn 128 LD 103

The Rows

West Suffolk council; caused by the death of independent councillor John Smith.

Last week Andrew’s Previews was in the Cambridgeshire town of Soham, describing a by-election in Soham North ward which the Conservatives eventually gained from the Liberal Democrats. We now turn to one of Soham North’s neighbouring wards, over the county boundary in Suffolk, to see if the Conservatives can gain that one too.

The eponymous Rows here are three villages to the west of Mildenhall: Beck Row, Holywell Row and West Row. The ward also takes in the village of Kenny Hill and a large area of fenland to the west. West Row has gone down in history as the place where the Mildenhall Treasure was discovered by a local farmer; this collection of Roman silver masterpieces can now be seen in the British Museum.

At the time of the 2011 census this area was part of the Eriswell and the Rows ward of what was then Forest Heath district. This ward had a very unusual census return. In 2011 Eriswell and the Rows ranked number 1 in England and Wales for people with non-UK qualifications, number 5 in England and Wales for the proportion of households living rent-free, made the top 20 wards in England and Wales for people born outside the UK or an EU country and for the White Other ethnic group, made the top 40 wards in England and Wales for “intermediate” occupations, and had the highest mixed-race population of any ward in the Eastern region (6.7%). This is the sort of return you’d expect to see in London or another city with a large immigrant population, not in rural Suffolk.

W Suffolk, The Rows

Well, the reason for this is not hard to seek. In between the Rows villages lies RAF Mildenhall, which for over sixty years has been on the front line of the Cold War and subsequent conflicts as the United States Air Force’s main base in Britain. Since 1959 Mildenhall has been the main point of entry to the UK for American service personnel. Among its most recent arrivals was President Biden, who landed here in June on his way to the G7 summit in Cornwall and addressed US troops here.

RAF Mildenhall is a major local employer and its population dwarfs that of the Rows, but very few if any of the military personnel there will have the right to vote in this by-election. Instead it’s the villagers who will decide this election in an area whose administrative boundaries have been subject to some flux in recent years. The whole of this ward was part of Mildenhall parish (hence the name “Mildenhall Treasure”) until 1999, when Beck Row, Holywell Row and Kenny Hill declared independence. West Row also subsequently became a parish of its own, as recently as May 2019.

That May 2019 reorganisation also extended to the district council. From the 1970s the local authority had been Forest Heath, a district with a rather low population based on Mildenhall and Newmarket. Forest Heath district was effectively taken over by the neighbouring St Edmundsbury district in 2019, the two fusing into a new district with the name West Suffolk.

West Suffolk, 2019

This merger went down pretty badly in the former Forest Heath area, which had been strongly Conservative: the wards covering that area returned a majority of independent councillors in May 2019. The Rows ward voted for an independent slate of John Smith (who had contested the former Eriswell and the Rows ward with both the Lib Dem and West Suffolk Independent nominations in previous elections) and Donald Waldron, who beat the Conservative slate 61-39 in a straight fight.

Subsequent election results suggest that the Conservatives are well on the way to recovery here. They have performed well in a number of subsequent by-elections to West Suffolk council, including a gain from an independent in the neighbouring Lakenheath ward in May. This ward is covered by the Row Heath division of Suffolk county council, where the Conservatives had a big lead in May. Mind, the less said about the local Tory MP (Matt Hancock) the better.

This by-election arises from the death of John Smith, who passed away in June after a short but difficult illness. Smith had one of the major advocates of the new parish council for West Row, and he had hit the headlines in March last year with a campaign for the Mildenhall Treasure to be renamed as the West Row Treasure.

There is no independent candidate to replace John Smith, so we have a free-for-all! On paper the Conservatives look best-placed to gain The Rows ward, and their defending candidate has extensive local government experience. Matt Hancock’s election agent Lance Stanbury served from 1995 to 2004 on Welwyn Hatfield council in Hertfordshire, and was leader of that council for two years; more recently he had sat on Forest Heath council from 2015 to 2019 for Red Lodge ward, serving in that council’s cabinet until its abolition. Stanbury now lives in West Row and was on the defeated Conservative slate here in 2019. He is opposed by two candidates, Theresa Chipulina for Labour (who was a distant runner-up here in May’s county council elections) and Robert Pinsker for the Liberal Democrats.

Parliamentary constituency: West Suffolk
Suffolk county council division: Row Heath
ONS Travel to Work Area: Thetford and Mildenhall
Postcode districts: CB7, IP27, IP28

Theresa Chipulina (Lab)
Robert Pinsker (LD)
Lance Stanbury (C)

May 2019 result Ind 636/467 C 402/306

Tutbury and Outwoods

East Staffordshire council; caused by the resignation of Conservative councillor Gary Raybould.

E Staffs, Tutbury/Outwoods

For our Midlands by-election we come to the valley of the River Dove. This forms an obvious communication link between the high ground of the Peak District to the north and Needwood Forest to the south, and the main road and railway line from Stoke-on-Trent to Derby run through the Dove valley. However, the Dove is also a county and regional boundary: Derbyshire and the village of Hatton are located on the left bank, Staffordshire and the village of Tutbury on the right.

Overlooking the right bank of the Dove is what’s left of Tutbury Castle, which in its original form dates back to the Norman Conquest. The first Tutbury Castle belonged to Henry de Ferrers, one of the Conqueror’s leading Norman magnates who was rewarded with large amounts of land in Staffordshire and Derbyshire. His descendants became the first line of the Earls of Derby. As well as the castle, Henry also founded a Benedictine priory in Tutbury, part of whose church survives as the parish church; its west door retains a well-preserved Norman archway.

Tutbury Castle came into the hands of the Crown centuries ago and is still owned by the Duchy of Lancaster to this day. It was largely destroyed in the Civil War and never rebuilt. However, the damage to Tutbury Castle doesn’t come close to what happened during the Second World War at RAF Fauld, a couple of miles to the west. Located just outside the present ward boundary, RAF Fauld was an underground depot used for storing munitions; at 11:11 on 27 November 1944 at least 3,500 metric tons of high explosive went up in the largest explosion ever on UK soil. The resulting crater, which obliterated a farm and a reservoir, is still visible today. The explosion and flooding are thought to have killed around 70 people, some of whom are buried in the churchyard at Tutbury.

The ward containing Tutbury extends to the south into the higher ground of Needwood Forest. The Outwoods part of the ward name refers to the parish of Outwoods, or more specifically to what’s left of that parish after some of it was annexed by Burton upon Trent many years ago. Some recent development on the edge of Burton has spilled over into this ward.

East Staffordshire, 2019

This area is covered by East Staffordshire council, which is based on Burton and Uttoxeter. Burton is traditionally quite a Labour town, but it’s outvoted at local elections by Tory-voting Uttoxeter and the villages. Tutbury and Outwoods ward is part of the Tory majority on the council; at the most recent elections in May 2019 they had a 58-42 lead over Labour in a straight fight. The local county council division (Dove) is also safe Conservative.

District councillor Garry Raybould stood down in August, midway through his first term of office. Defending for the Conservatives in the resulting by-election is Russell Lock, the chair of Tutbury parish council; he is a lecturer in computer science at Loughborough University. The opposition appears to have split: John Anderson, who was the Labour runner-up here in the 2015 and 2019 elections, is this time standing as an independent candidate while the official Labour candidate is Dale Barr. Completing the ballot paper is Lynn Furber for the Green Party.

Parliamentary constituency: Burton
Staffordshire county council division: Dove
ONS Travel to Work Area: Burton upon Trent
Postcode districts: DE13, DE14

John Anderson (Ind)
Dale Barr (Lab)
Lynn Furber (Grn)
Russell Lock (C)

May 2019 result C 935/856 Lab 683/627
May 2015 result C 1774/1502 Lab 963/782 UKIP 732 Grn 292
May 2011 result C 1266/1238 Lab 752/671
May 2007 result C 1275/1183 Lab 485/470
May 2003 result C 1207/1132 Lab 718/658 LD 292/270

Penrith West

Eden council, Cumbria; caused by the resignation of Conservative councillor John Thompson.

Eden, Penrith W

We want the finest by-elections known to humanity, we want them here and we want them now. Let me oblige. Welcome to Penrith, the main town in the very sparsely-populated Eden district of Cumbria. This is the point where all the main communication links in eastern Cumbria meet: the main road and railway line between Carlisle to the north and Lancaster to the south cross the main road going west to Keswick and Workington and east to Scotch Corner.

All those roads lead to Penrith, a small but perfectly-formed market town which is the largest population centre for a long way in any direction. The Penrith West ward covers most of the town centre together with the railway station and points west along the road to Greystoke, including the industrial estate at Gilwilly. The ward is in the top 100 in England and Wales for those employed in the wholesale and retail sector (23%) and for those with 5+ GCSE passes or equivalent but no higher qualification (19.9%, the highest figure for any ward in Cumbria).

Eden’s ward map is one of the oldest in England, having been unchanged since the 1999 local elections. All of Penrith West’s six ordinary elections since then have resulted in split representation. In 1999 the ward returned an independent councillor and a Labour representative; Labour gave up their seat in 2003 and it went to the Conservatives’ John Thompson, who won without a contest. The ward’s independent councillor Colin Nineham, who was leader of the council at the time, resigned in 2009 after being arrested on suspicion of fraud at a recycling company he ran, and the resulting by-election was won by the Liberal Democrats.

Since then the ward has had one Lib Dem and one Conservative councillor, with both parties seemingly content not to challenge the other for a full slate. May 2019 was a poor election for the Eden Conservatives, and John Thompson kept his seat with a majority of just five votes over Labour; shares of the vote were 41% for the Lib Dems, 23% for the Conservatives and 22% for Labour. Eden council has been run since 2019 by a rainbow anti-Conservative coalition, with Penrith West ward’s Lib Dem councillor Virginia Taylor serving as leader of the council. The Penrith West county council division, which also takes in the Penrith South district ward, is Conservative-held; however, the 2021 Cumbria county council elections were cancelled pending a reorganisation of the county’s local government.

This by-election is defended by the Conservatives following the retirement of John Thompson after 18 years’ service. With the party starting from second place in the ward this may be an uphill struggle for their defending candidate Dale Normington. The Lib Dems have selected Roger Burgin, an accountant and Penrith town councillor. Labour’s Dave Knaggs, who lost out here by five votes in 2019, is standing again; he is also a Penrith town councillor. Also standing are Jonathan Davies for the localist slate Putting Cumbria First, Richard O’Brien for the Green Party and independent candidate Jeff Thomson, a PR copywriter and campaigner against smells from an animal byproducts processing plant in the ward.

Parliamentary constituency: Penrith and the Border
Cumbria county council division: Penrith West
ONS Travel to Work Area: Penrith
Postcode district: CA11

Roger Burgin (LD)
Jonathan Davies (Putting Cumbria First)
Dave Knaggs (Lab)
Dale Normington (C)
Richard O’Brien (Grn)
Jeff Thomson (Ind)

May 2019 result LD 283 C 159 Lab 154/108 UKIP 100
May 2015 result LD 571 C 545 Lab 475
May 2011 result LD 488 C 318 BNP 94
October 2009 by-election LD 387 C 157 BNP 102 Ind 58 Lab 26 Grn 18
May 2007 result Ind 324 C 276 Lab 116
May 2003 result Ind/C unopposed
May 1999 result Ind 264 Lab 147/121

Hetton

Sunderland council, Tyne and Wear; caused by the death of Labour councillor Doris Turner.

Sunderland, Hetton

We finish for the week in the north-east with our Labour defence, on the Durham coalfield. The village of Hetton-le-Hole was described as “a close-knit community where coal was king and football was religion” by the great Liverpool manager Bob Paisley, who was born here in 1919. Deep mining in Hetton had started here a century before that with the sinking of Hetton Colliery’s first shaft.

Hetton has an unusual distinction in transport history. The colliery owners decided to export their coal by building a waggonway to cover the eight miles from Hetton to the River Wear. To build it they commissioned George Stephenson, who had already done something similar for the colliery at Killingworth in Northumberland. Stephenson’s resulting railway, opened in 1822, was the first in the world that used no animal power; the wagons were hauled by locomotives on the level stretches and by gravity down the inclines. His locomotives, as on the Killingworth waggonway, had wheels 4 feet 8 inches apart, which (with the addition of an extra half-inch) remains to this day the standard gauge for most of the world’s railways.

Football might still be the religion in Hetton-le-Hole (Steph Houghton, the England and Manchester City women’s team captain, went to school here), but coal is no longer king. The last pit, Eppleton Colliery, closed in 1986 and most of the spoil tips have been landscaped. The legacy of coal has left its mark on the census return, with Hetton ward just creeping into the top 100 wards in England and Wales for those born in the UK (98.3%), but this is now for the most part a post-industrial landscape.

Hetton ward is the southernmost ward in the county of Tyne and Wear, and has been part of Sunderland city council since the 1970s. Its current boundaries were introduced in 2004, and the ward has voted Labour at every election since. This record has been maintained despite a number of strong challenges from UKIP, who came close to winning in 2012, 2014 and 2019 when the anti-Labour vote was split a number of ways. Labour councillor Doris Turner was lucky to be re-elected that year for a second term on just 33% of the vote.

Labour put in some appalling election results generally in Sunderland in 2019 and 2021, and their majority is now down to 41 seats out of 75, plus this vacancy; there are 19 Conservatives, 12 Lib Dems and 2 Wearside Independent councillors, who were originally elected on the UKIP ticket. Mind, in Hetton ward Labour’s May 2021 result was a lot better than two years previously: they improved their vote share to 45%, against 20% for independent candidate David Geddis and 19% for the Conservatives.

This by-election follows the death of councillor Doris Turner at the age of 81. Turner had served on Sunderland city council since 2015, and had also been Mayor of Hetton. Away from politics she was a Sunderland FC fan, and could often be seen at the Eppleton Colliery Welfare Ground in Hetton selling raffle tickets at Sunderland Reserves matches.

Defending for Labour is Iain Scott, a Hetton town councillor. Independent town councillor David Geddis is having another go after finishing as runner-up in 2018 and in May this year. The Conservatives have selected Adelle Burnicle, a primary school teacher. Also standing are Justine Merton-Scott for the Green Party, John Lennox for the Lib Dems and disgraced former police officer (link) Maurice Allen, who is standing as an independent candidate.

Parliamentary constituency: Houghton and Sunderland South
ONS Travel to Work Area: Sunderland
Postcode districts: DH4, DH5, SR7

Maurice Allen (Ind)
Adelle Burnicle (C)
David Geddis (Ind)
John Lennox (LD)
Justine Merton-Scott (Grn)
Iain Scott (Lab)

May 2021 result Lab 1258 Ind 554 C 545 UKIP 313 Grn 81 LD 63
May 2019 result Lab 990 UKIP 854 Ind 642 Democrats and Veterans 208 C 168 Grn 111
May 2018 result Lab 1480 Ind 799 C 358 Grn 74 LD 54
May 2016 result Lab 1531 UKIP 1037 C 159 Ind 135 LD 92
May 2015 result Lab 2544 UKIP 1617 C 435 LD 154
May 2014 result Lab 1470 UKIP 1351 C 188 LD 75
May 2012 result Lab 1628 UKIP 1363 LD 154
May 2011 result Lab 1940 UKIP 956 C 239 LD 167
May 2010 result Lab 2465 LD 966 C 575 BNP 389
May 2008 result Lab 1843 C 821
May 2007 result Lab 1506 LD 489 BNP 402 C 328
May 2006 result Lab 1364 BNP 544 C 494
June 2004 result Lab 1670/1663/1413 LD 920 C 676 BNP 442


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