Will Northamptonshire's electorate finally get to the polling station?
Fears the new unitary councils will have no democratic mandate if elections are cancelled again
By Sarah Ward
Northamptonshire folk should be heading to the ballot box to vote in the local elections this May, according to central government.
Following a week of speculation about whether the local council vote will be called off due to Covid-related safety reasons, yesterday cabinet office minister Chloe Smith said the ballots would take place across the country on May 6 as ‘voters have a right to be heard and to decide who governs them’.
The minister said there would be additional Covid-19 safety measures put in place at polling stations and the government is actively encouraging anyone shielding to apply for an absent vote. There was however a caveat in that the decision would be ‘under review’, but the minister said there would have to be robust evidence if a cancellation was decided.
Labour has said more clarity is needed on the Covid-19 safety measures and says this is another example of the government being too slow to act. They also said they hoped there would not be a last minute u-turn as there has been this month with school closures.
Elections are more overdue in Northamptonshire than in any other part of the country.
They were cancelled in 2019 due to the impending local government reorganisation and then Covid-19 halted the 2020 elections which were put off until this year.
If cancelled again it would mean that most of Northamptonshire’s councillors will have stayed on representing their residents for two years longer than they were originally voted for in 2015.
Voters have also not been to the ballot box since the collapse of Northamptonshire County Council in 2018. It was because of this failure the government ordered a new system of local governance in Northants - with the county’s seven existing borough and district councils (except Corby) reluctantly voting for their own abolition. Since then there has been a hectic 18 months of work for officers and politicians to try and create the two new unitary councils, one for the West of the county and another for the North.
An election cancellation would also mean the new unitary councils that come into being on April 1 would initially be governed by councillors who have not been voted into place.
Two shadow authorities made up of councillors elected to the county and the various districts and boroughs are currently making decisions ahead of the unitaries coming in and have put together the budgets for the councils, both of which could be heavily impacted by Covid-19 costs. And both are being led by unelected Conservative leaders - Cllr Russell Roberts in the North and Cllr Ian McCord in the West - who were installed in post by central government.
What local politicians are saying
NN Journal has found a mixed reaction from local politicians when asking whether elections should go ahead this May.
Liberal Democrat county councillor Chris Stanbra, who represents the Oakley ward in Corby, is very certain they should go ahead and said residents would be disappointed if they didn’t.
“We have waited a long time for elections in Northamptonshire and to delay any longer would be a denial of democracy,” he says.
“There needs to be democratic legitimacy for these two new councils. By delaying elections we will have councillors making important decisions, who were not voted for by the electorate.
“I appreciate we are in a difficult situation, but by May we will hopefully be in a lot less difficulty than we are now”.
He says he would expect a ‘collegiate’ approach if elections were cancelled, so any decisions made by the councils’ executives would take into account all views, not just those of the existing Conservative ruling party.
Green Party candidate Dez Dell who hopes to be elected to the North unitary, says Northamptonshire could be used as a postal vote pilot.
“To delay people their right to vote even longer is undemocratic,” he says.
“When our existing councillors are so disengaged they are being disqualified from office for not attending meetings in six months, we need to vote in new councillors with the energy and vim to tackle major issues such as the climate emergency.
“This is obviously an exceptional time, but we are the exception in the country and we need this vote. It may be impractical for the rest of the country to vote in May, but I don’t see why Northamptonshire can’t be used as a trial county for postal only voting or even electronic voting.
“We don’t know what the situation will be like in a few months time, so if we were to be used as a trial, that data could help other county elections later in the year, and we would still get to exercise our democratic right to vote.
“That has to be better than postponing again, especially for those tired and disengaged councillors just waiting out their time. I think that long as the election can be held safely Northamptonshire residents should get their say in who represents them.”
But Conservative Northampton Borough councillor Anna King who represents Phippsville and Independent Northamptonshire county councillor Jim Hakewill, who represents Rothwell and Mawsley and also sits on Kettering Borough Council, think the elections should be temporarily postponed.
This second winter wave of Covid is seeing more deaths per day than ever before - this week the daily death toll was more than 1,500 for the first time - and towns such as Corby and Northampton currently have very high rates of infections. The county’s two hospitals are also under huge pressure due to high numbers of patients seriously ill with the virus.
“You have got to make sure we are keeping people in our community safe,” says Cllr King. “I think we should have a temporary delay on the grounds of safety”.
“The only thing we should be concentrating on is looking after our residents during this crisis’, says Cllr Hakewill. “I strongly feel the local government reorganisation should be frozen so we can let council staff get on with dealing with Covid.
“I would be inclined to cancel the elections, sort out Covid and with a fair wind look at elections in September. The great hope would certainly be that canvassing can take place so people can consider who they want to vote for.”
Covid has certainly put a spanner in the works of the campaigning efforts. If the lockdown goes into March it will have a big impact on election hopefuls being able to knock on residents’ doors in the attempt to persuade them to put a cross by their name.
This year will also be an even bigger effort than usual for Northamptonshire election officials as alongside the local unitary elections, residents will also be casting their ballots for a police, fire and crime commissioner and many will also be voting for the first time for a new town council. Northampton, Corby, Kettering and Wellingborough will all form new town councils, that will take over some public services from the unitaries.
A joint statement given to NN Journal from the West and North Shadow Authorities, has expressed some caution about whether the elections will go ahead.
It says: “We are aware of the May local elections being under review by central government. While we are looking forward to having councillors in place for the new North Northamptonshire Council and West Northamptonshire Council, which will take over the delivery of public services currently run by the county council and district and borough councils across Northamptonshire from 1 April, the number one priority for a local authority is the safety of residents. If the 6 May elections do take place, we will of course ensure that voting follows all Covid-safe protocols in place at the time. "
According to the May 6 timeline the deadline for nominations will be 4pm on April 8 and the final date to register to vote will be midnight on April 19 . The deadline to apply for a postal vote will be 5pm on April 20.
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