Mayoral questions spice up local elections

Sam SchofieldSam Schofield, director of public consultation specialist, PPS North, makes his predictions for the local elections on 3 May and their implications for developers.

This year's local elections occur against a political backdrop substantially similar to 2011. Last year was a good year for the Labour party, which won more than half of the 2,200 seats contested in the North West. It was also a bad year for Liberal Democrats, which endured its worst-ever local elections. In 2008 – the last time the same seats as this year were contested – the Conservatives had an excellent night, gaining seats and important local councils, Labour fared poorly and the Liberal Democrats endured mixed results. As we reach the middle of the Parliamentary term, we would naturally expect Labour, as the national opposition party, to fare much better.

What can we say about the North West this year? For a start, there is mayoral excitement closer to home than London: Liverpool and Salford are electing executive mayors, and likely to opt for Labour candidates. In Liverpool, this may mean relatively little change, since Joe Anderson is already the council leader. In Salford, former MP Ian Stewart should win. Liverpool is already enjoying attention from the press and in Whitehall as the first major city outside London to elect an executive mayor. It will be interesting to see how far mayors take advantage of their autonomous position compared with existing council leaders.

The outcome of Manchester's mayoral referendum is difficult to predict. The city establishment favours a 'no' vote. The wording of the question and the Salfordian precedent suggest that Mancunians may wake up on 4 May with a mayoral election looming. Should this be the case, its future mayor will assume a high profile and the dynamics will be fascinating.

Executive mayors may seem unimportant to developers but their remit could expand. They have the opportunity to request additional powers; London's mayor wields a veto over planning for example. This, together with the Prime Minister's planned 'cabinet of executive mayors', means that some executive mayors could end up as very significant figures in the planning process.
Prominent mayors could become influential figures in planning and controversial developments could become campaign issues. In future, sensitivities surrounding the electoral cycle may be an even more important consideration for developers, even though the four-year mayoral term may introduce more stability to civic government.

Labour will gain councillors and councils and improve their majorities. They should increase their hold on Preston and take outright control in Rochdale and Bury. In Warrington, Labour should stretch its majority into double figures. They have an outside chance of becoming the first sole party to control Sefton, which is run by a tripartite coalition, since 1985. They will hope to regain the Wirral under their new leader, David Foulkes, needing only four seats to end a period of instability during which Labour have alternated control with a fragile Liberal Democrat-Conservative coalition.

Many metropolitan councils will be stable. Labour will control Wigan, Tameside, Oldham and Manchester. The Conservatives will remain dominant in Trafford. In Stockport, the Liberal Democrats will hope to remain the largest party.

What does all this mean for developers? In many places, more of the same, with no drastic personnel changes. Those councils remaining without overall control, though, may be fertile ground for changes of leadership in the aftermath of elections: we will have to wait for late-May AGMs to see deals done and key appointments made.

One further political factor looks likely to influence the planning landscape. The government plans to permit councils to keep some of the business rates they collect, to provide an incentive to promote economic growth. It will be interesting to see to what extent this becomes a factor for councils as they consider future planning applications.

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