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By LGC political correspondent Varya Shaw ...
By LGC political correspondent Varya Shaw
County council elections could be postponed if the foot-and-mouth disease outbreak continues to escalate.
The fear is that canvassing and even polling could spread the disease, while banning these activities would compromise the elections' democratic legitimacy.
But while the general election can be delayed, the date of local elections is legally fixed as the first Thursday in May. Postponing them would require primary legislation.
A Cumbria CC spokesman said village polling stations would be affected if restrictions on the movement of people were in place. A Gloucestershire CC spokeswoman said: 'If they're wanting to limit the movement of people, postponing the local elections is next.'
Local Government Association deputy chair Lord Hanningfield - leader of Essex CC, where the disease has surfaced - said: 'In the 1960s foot and mouth was fairly well contained in the Midlands. The real problem [this time is that] it's all over the country.
'With it starting in the south east and originating in Northumberland, it's going to take a lot of restrictions on movement to stop it. We could find in a week that it does abate. But then we'd worry it would resurface later.'
The government has given councils statutory powers to close all public byways to prevent spread of the disease by humans - restricting movement of people in deed if not in name.
Agriculture minister Nick Brown said: 'No-one should go on to farming premises unless there's a very strong need for them to do so and that goes for canvassers as well.'
Shadow local government minister Nigel Waterson said: 'Clearly we don't want a situation where lots of people in the countryside are disenfranchised because they can't move, or their local polling station, say at the local school, is shut, which seems to be a possibility in some parts of the country.'
A general election in April is almost certainly ruled out as a result of the outbreak. LGC elections expert Professor Colin Rallings said: 'The issue with the general election is the proroguing of Parliament when something might have to be discussed and made a decision on. It would have to be prorogued on the 12 March if there was to be a 5 April election.'
Local Government Association assistant director of legal services John Rees said: 'I don't believe that in 1967 there was any change to the elections because of foot and mouth. There are no restrictions on the movement of people and as far as I know there are no plans for them.'
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