Local politics in Bexley is in some ways a mirror image of Greenwich – but tomorrow’s local elections there have an element of surprise about them. Will the Conservative council be punished for selling off parks and cutting back on CCTV coverage? 853’s DA-postcode correspondent STEVE KEENE explains what’s at stake the other side of Shooters Hill.
It is easy to paint Bexley as a dull, safe Tory borough. However, as the past 20 years show, this isn’t always a given. The 1994 election saw no party gain overall control, while Labour replicated their successes of the ’60s and ’70s in the borough by winning control in the 2002 election.
Bexley is also a perhaps surprisingly divided borough – the working class north bordering the Thames is still dominated by industry, the middle class south of the borough is far more leafy and well-to-do. Bexley is the second cheapest borough to buy a house in London, yet there is a wide gap in house prices between say Slade Green and Bexley.
As a borough predominantly made up of addresses with a Kent postcode there is also an ambivalence from many towards the capital, yet at the same time a great many residents commute into London. And the demographics are shifting too, especially as young professionals get priced out of inner London and head to the relatively cheaper suburbs.
Within this context there are a number of things to look out for this Thursday as Bexley goes to the polls.
What happens to the Ukip vote?
In 2014 Ukip won three seats, yet that was only part of the story as they won a significant share of the vote in several wards, even when they failed to win a seat. Barnehurst, Blackfen and Lamorbey, Blendon and Penhill, Colyers, and St Michael’s wards all saw Ukip gain over 30 per cent share.
Two years later Bexley was also a rare London borough where most residents voted for Brexit – 63% voting to leave, with a 75% turnout.
However, with Ukip support generally on the wane it will be interesting to see if Bexley remains an outpost for Ukip, and if not, where those floating voters end up. Any sort of significant swing to Labour could see the Conservatives lose seats.
What will be the effect of fewer council wards?
Following a review of the borough’s ward boundaries by the Local Government Boundary Commission the number of wards in borough has been reduced from 21 to 17, with the number of local councillors reduced from 63 to 45. While it is reasonably easy to predict how some of the new wards will vote, broadly north heading to Labour and south to the Conservatives, it is less easy to predict how any tweaks to wards in the middle of the borough will pan out, especially combined with the Ukip vote question.
The Conservative council has attracted a lot of controversy with its policy of selling off parks to make up for funding shortfalls. This has been a particularly unpopular policy, galvanising communities who would not usually gather and protest over anything political. Two sites currently under threat are Old Farm Park in Sidcup and the green space on Wilde Road in Northumberland Heath, both Conservative wards.
Old Manor Way playground in Barnehurst won a reprieve, but it will be interesting to see what voters think of their Conservative councillors in that ward too.
In 2016 Bexley Council made the decision to remove live monitoring of the 200 CCTV cameras in the area, saving £225,000 a year. This, again, hasn’t been popular in some quarters, with a petition registering over 2,000 signatures.
While Bexley is not necessarily a crime hotspot, in an inherently small-c conservative borough we may see a backlash from voters worried about their safety.
Increased spending in the past year
For all the savings made, Bexley Council have significantly increased their spending in the run up to the election. A tidier, better-maintained borough may encourage more Conservative votes, but only if those voters don’t suspect a more cynical motive. Bexley is generally a nice place to live, and investment in the last year has made it even more so. That could easily have an impact as people walk to their polling station.
Lack of scrutiny
However, there is a good chance that a great many people will have noticed little or none of the above. Bexley, like many London boroughs, suffers from a distinct lack of scrutiny or analysis from the press.
Bexley rarely, if ever, merits a mention on the local television or radio news. Many council meetings would receive no coverage at all if it was not for a local blogger. The local newspaper, the News Shopper, is based in Sutton and generally struggles to cover the nuances of local politics.
While Bexley has seen a growth in community grassroots action, and does have a handful of dedicated hyperlocal tweeters and bloggers, it is hard to tell if much of this translates to the wider electorate’s understanding of politics in Bexley.
You don’t need to be a political scientist or data whizz to predict a Conservative success in Bexley. Yet there are enough variables, from floating Ukip voters to parks campaigners to shifted ward boundaries to create a degree of uncertainty. It will most likely be a Conservative win, but will they win well or get a bit of a scare?
Read more of Steve’s writing at waituntilnextyear.com.
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