The South.

Whilst 2023 was the major year for local elections in the region, there are still 56 councils in the South with seats up in May 2024. 36 will elect a third of the council, 16 will hold all-out elections and four will elect half of the council. 

In the vast majority of these councils (just over 40) the Liberal Democrat / Labour / Green / Residents Associations / Independent pattern of control that became dominant in 2023 will continue – along with the explicitly anti-development approach in many of these cases. 

If you are currently engaging with one of the 15 Conservative controlled authorities, the odds are there will be a change of political control after 2nd May.  

In London, with Mayoral and London Assembly elections, recent polling puts Sadiq Khan at 49% in the polls to Susan Hall’s 24%. The Conservative strategy is to focus on the unpopularity of ULEZ and persuade their traditional Outer London to turn out against Khan in spite of the national picture, but the Mayor currently remains well ahead in both Inner and Outer London. 

Overall, the results look likely to mark the low point of Conservative controlled councils and number of Conservative councillors across the region. For the next few years across the South of England, a Conservative controlled local planning authority will be a rare species. 

Key highlights.

Sadiq Khan has confirmed plans to create a City Hall-owned housing developer if he is re-elected in May.

This new body was first recommended by Lord Kerslake in 2022 and would aim to bring housing schemes forward on land where there have been tensions between developers and local councils. Rob Blackie, the Liberal Democrat candidate, recently proposed similar plans, stating that a new body would “fill in the gaps” left by the private market.

Independents are talking up their chances, saying they hope to “make their mark”, with a third of seats up for election and the Conservatives currently clinging on with a minority administration after heavy losses last year.

However, with the Independents looking more likely to have an impact in the more rural, (previously) safe Tory wards, the path looks fairly clear elsewhere for Labour to pick up at least the six seats they need to form a majority. With Thurrock a prime target in the General Election, the scale of a Labour victory on 2nd May will be an interesting one to watch.

The Green Party is running a local election crowdfunder, aiming to keep Conservatives in opposition and maintain their leadership.

The Greens, running candidates for all 51 council seats, are currently leading a progressive alliance with the Independents and Liberal Democrats. They hope to become the majority party after the elections. The party needs six more seats to become the largest single party and 12 additional seats to govern with a majority.

A Labour councillor and candidate in the Labour/Green battleground seat of Redlands have been accused of misconduct, following reports that the candidate was canvassing for support at the councillor’s council-supported casework surgery.

However, with Labour currently enjoying a healthy majority – two thirds of all seats – ward-level difficulties such as this are unlikely to be causing the administration too much concern about their prospects on 2nd May.

Sadiq Khan has promised to build 6,000 new rent-controlled homes if he is re-elected in May. Campaigners from the London Renters Union say that this “will not bring security to the capital’s 3 million private renters who are living in fear that they will be forced out of their homes by an unaffordable rent increase.”

Sadiq remains “on course for victory” with 44 per cent of the vote according to latest polls in the Evening Standard.

The Greens are ‘eyeing a victory’ in Bristol, where the council will be moving from a directly-elected mayor to a committee system. Dissatisfaction over a mix of (inter)national and local issues is causing problems for Labour, who hold the mayoralty but are at level-pegging with the Greens on council seats.

With the Greens likely to fall short of an outright majority, Green party leader Cllr Emma Edwards is reported as saying: “I’ve been looking at councils around the country where they’ve moved to a committee system and the ones where it’s working best are where they’ve managed to overcome that tribalism. We’re going to have to work together”.

The Green Party is claiming they can leapfrog all other parties and become the largest party on Maidstone Borough Council, replacing the Conservative minority administration.

Campaign literature (which you can see here) in the Greens’ target wards pledges to protect green spaces from ‘overdevelopment’ and to campaign for ‘social housing on existing sites’. With the Lib Dem’s strength seemingly now limited to the town of Maidstone itself, the Greens’ ambitious claim could well prove to be realistic.

Labour council leader Pete Marland is waging a war of words with the Tory opposition over the classic local council issue of weekly bin collections: something Cllr Marland denies the authority is seeking to scrap.

Having ruled in coalition with the Lib Dems since 2021, Labour will be optimistic that they can continue their trend of gains at the expense of the Conservatives and secure an outright majority: they only need a net gain of two seats to achieve this.

Wokingham will see the departure of three former council leaders – two Conservative and one Liberal Democrat, all of whom are standing down in May.  Also stepping down is veteran Conservative councillor Pauline Helliar-Symons, who was first elected in 1982

The Lib Dems have run the council with coalition and minority administrations since 2022. With boundary alterations in effect, all of the council’s 54 seats will be contested and the party looks likely to secure an overall majority.

Despite a recent visit by PM Rishi Sunak to Kingsholm Stadium, Gloucester Tories are reportedly fearing “wipeout”, having controlled the city for 20 years. The local party has had a difficult few years, suffering by-election losses and defections.

The Lib Dems, currently second placed with 14 of 39 seats, will be hopefully of taking control. Labour are starting at a low base of only two councillors, but there are plenty of Conservative seats that are vulnerable to them – expect a strong three-way fight here.

Harlow hit national news with local MP Robert Halfon resigning as Education Minister and announcing that he will not be standing at the next General Election: the constituency is predicted to fall to Labour.

Locally, with the council facing all-out elections following boundary changes, leader Dan Swords has been trumpeting the Conservative administration’s investment in council housing stock and success in clearing a backlog of repairs. Although there relatively few marginal wards up for grabs, Labour will be hopeful that their huge national poll lead is enough to topple the Conservative majority.

A Green Party councillor has been attacked by a dog while out canvassing in Adur. Cllr Gabe Crisp was bitten on her left arm, hand, right knee and left thigh when a resident opened their door. She warned that “with local and general elections coming up there is going to be a lot of doorstep canvassing and people should be aware.”

The Conservatives currently have a slim majority in Adur, one of the few remaining Councils to elect in halves. Like many traditionally Tory districts along the South coast, recent years have seen the emergence of a red and green wave. Labour is currently in second place with seats and stand a good chance of running the council after 2 May.

ULEZ continues to dominate much of the London Mayoral election campaign coverage, with Sadiq Khan confirming that there will be no changes to vehicle restrictions and a spokesperson confirming that “as long as Sadiq is Mayor the £12.50 ULEZ charge will not be increased.”

Despite the vast unpopularity of ULEZ in Outer London, new polling puts Khan 24 points ahead of the Conservative candidate, Susan Hall. This issue alone appears not to be enough to help close the gap between her and Khan. It may not have helped that Susan Hall’s campaign had to hurriedly take down a campaign video that was posted showing shots not of London, but of New York.

At 5 weeks to polling day, the Conservatives lost their last remaining majority-controlled borough/district in Surrey. The resignation of Cllr Zelaine Cooper from Reigate & Banstead’s Conservative group means the party now has 22 out of 45 councillors and is currently governing as a minority administration.

The Green Party has been picking up seats in recent years and they will likely be in a position to form some form of coalition administration with local residents’ groups after the election.

In London, it appears that only a huge, sudden collapse on a scale to Liz Truss’ mini-budget stand between Khan and an unprecedented third term as Mayor.

Sadiq even leads in the typically-less-Labour ‘doughnut’ of outer London boroughs by 46% to 27%, backing up his 54% to 19% lead in central London. 

The only challenge to Labour appears to be that 45% of Londoners are dissatisfied with Khan’s performance across the last 8 years. Expect a narrow, ULEZ-dominated policy attack from the Conservatives as they try to rally their traditional Outer London base in spite of the national tide.

This is the London Assembly’s first election with new voter ID rules, and a change in the Mayoral voting system to First Past The Post. Anything is still possible, though a solid Labour mayoral victory looks likely. 

Across Surrey and Hampshire, it will be tough going for the Conservatives and the rise of the Liberal Democrats, Labour, Green, Residents Associations and Independents can be expected to continue.

Surrey will be left without a single Conservative controlled borough or district for the first time in history if, as we expect, the party loses Runnymede and Reigate & Banstead. In Hampshire, the big shock of the night will be if Conservative controlled Rushmoor falls to Labour outright for the first time in the authority’s 50-year history.

Fareham and Havant may continue to buck the trend and stay Conservative – but watch for the scale of the swing in these areas.

The East of England has plenty of ones to watch: Thurrock, currently held narrowly by the Conservatives, will be particularly interesting for those looking ahead to the national picture, as it contains a key Labour General Election target constituency.  
Harlow, Epping Forest and Basildon are all likely to fall from Conservative control, but Broxbourne should stay blue. Brentwood and Colchester will see fights between Labour and the Lib Dems.   

In Kent and Sussex, the South Coast red and green wave that hit at the May 2023 local elections is likely to march on in Adur, where the Conservatives still currently hold a majority.

Labour’s strong polling could cause a surprise in Hastings – currently run by a coalition of Greens and Independents – though the Labour council group has had its difficulties.

Further inland, the Conservatives held on with a minority administration in Maidstone last year, but this time face all-out elections.

In Thames Valley and South West, further rainbow coalitions are likely to displace Conservative control.

In Gloucester and the Dorset unitary authority, the Conservatives are set to lose their majorities, while Cherwell in Oxfordshire should slip from minority Conservative control (if the other parties can agree on a coalition this time).

In Milton Keynes there’s a chance that Labour finally wins an outright majority after a stable and durable coalition with the Lib Dems that has lasted many years.

Check back next week for more insight.

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