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Polls have left some new councils looking more different than expected

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A commentary on the first ever elections at England’s five new councils 

On a day in Brexit-battered Britain when much of the focus was on disastrous results for the Conservatives (more than 1,300 councillors unseated), and very disappointing ones for Labour (no overall control in the former stronghold across Tees Valley), those interested in the political impact of often-contentious local government reorganisation would have cast their eyes to the results in Dorset, where two new unitary councils were holding their inaugural elections.

Bournemouth, Christchurch & Poole Council in particular was an interesting testing ground for the impact at the ballot box of local tensions over the creation of the new council. Christchurch was essentially dragged kicking and screaming into the new arrangement, with anti-reorganisation councillors defiantly exploring every avenue to avoid the council’s extinction before accepting the inevitable.

A group of former Christchurch Tories remained so fed up either with what they perceived to be a takeover rather than a merger, or an internal party selection process that had cast away some former colleagues, that they stood as independents. All five of this group that LGC was aware of were elected on a night when 33 Conservative councillors failed to do the same.

This contributed to the new council - created out of three Conservative-led local authorities - being left under no overall control, with Conservatives winning 36 seats, Independents 19, the Liberal Democrats taking 15 and Labour, the Greens and Ukip winning the remaining six.

Of the 120 councillors on the predecessor councils that joined Bournemouth, Christchurch & Poole, LGC snap analysis shows 84% were Conservatives, 7% were independents and 5% were Lib Dems.

Following the election, 47% of councillors are now Tories, 25% are Independents and 20% are Lib Dems. It remains to be seen if pre-reorganisation rivalries will spill over into how the council operates in its infancy.

At Dorset Council, there was no rise of the independents but Tory dominance was diluted by the Lib Dems. The election reduced 171 councillors from six councils to 82. The Conservatives took control with 43 councillors, the Lib Dems won 29, Greens and independents four each and Labour two. 

This means 52% of councillors are Tories compared to 75% across the previous councils and the proportion of Lib Dems almost doubled from 18% to 35%. The share of independents remained static at 5%.

Meanwhile, at Somerset West and Taunton Council which, replaced Conservative-led West Somerset DC and Taunton Deane BC, the Lib Dems took overall control with a narrow win. The party has 30 seats, followed by independents with 14 and the Conservatives with 10. Labour and the Greens have three and two respectively.

Elsewhere, the single largest district council in the country was created when East Suffolk Council replaced Suffolk Coastal and Waveney DCs. Suffolk Coastal had been Tory-led since 1999, while the party has been in control at Waveney since 2015 after four years of no overall control.

Last week the Tories took control of East Suffolk as expected with 39 seats, just down on its previous total across the two councils. Labour with seven seats is the second largest party. The biggest gain was made by the Greens who gained four from zero.

Forest Heath DC and St Edmundsbury BC merged to become West Suffolk Council. Both councils have been led by the Conservatives for well over a decade. This dominance was maintained in last week’s election.

All four Suffolk districts have worked in close partnership with the councils they are now merged with.

East Suffolk chief executive Stephen Baker said before the election the new structure “will very much be business as usual” and the political consistency delivered by the election strongly suggests this will be the case for both councils.

Dorset chief executive Matt Prosser earlier this year said the process of reorganisation had not been easy, with difficult decisions having to be made.

The election results across the region suggest Dorset, with the prospect of a unified political leadership, is better placed than Bournemouth, Christchurch & Poole - which could see tensions over reorganisation reignite - to make immediate and decisive progress required to rise to further challenges ahead.

Jon Bunn, senior reporter

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Readers' comments (1)

  • result....be careful what you wish for

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