“The way that they’ve drawn the boundaries is likely to deliver the best electoral prospects for the Tories, which literally means you’re rewarding failure.”
Jessica Murray www.theguardian.com
Home to what was once branded the worst-run council in the country, local elections this week mark the start of a new chapter for Northamptonshire.
After years of council turmoil including bankruptcy, a corruption scandal and failing social services, when people head to the polls on Thursday they’ll be voting for the first time to elect two new unitary authorities hoping to start afresh.
It’s the first local elections in the area since 2017, after the vote was delayed first for the restructuring process and then Covid. “It’s been a long time coming, we haven’t had an election for years, so I think everybody is keen to see democracy in Northamptonshire again,” said Robin Burgess, the chief executive of the Hope Centre in Northampton, which works to address poverty in the town.
“I think there is a degree of willingness by politicians to break away from the rather tragic history [of the old councils]. They were very damaged entities and going forward, I think they all want to be seen to be new.”
Poverty has soared in Northampton, with the number of people claiming unemployment benefits in the town more than doubling since the start of the pandemic, one of the sharpest increases in the country. And, with a lack of leadership and funding from local authority sources, charities and social enterprises have had to step up.
“The voluntary sector has been incredibly influential in terms of filling the void of leadership by politicians over the last couple of years because the system has been so broken locally,” said Burgess, whose charity now helps coordinate a network of 40 foodbanks across west Northamptonshire, many of which have sprung up over the past year as demand has increased.
But there is hope the two new unitary authorities, which have replaced the previous county and borough council system, will help improve services and get the area back on track again.
“We have all got a vested interest in making the new West Northants [council] successful because we’re all daily impacted by what has gone wrong,” said candidate Danielle Stone, leader of the West Northants Labour group. “I think it’s important that we renew our mandate, too. We’ve been without a mandate two years, and that’s very uncomfortable.”
But Stone is concerned the new setup means poorer urban areas such as Northampton are likely to be governed by a Conservative-majority council mainly made up of people from wealthier, rural areas. “Our concern is we’re going to be ruled by people who’ve got absolutely no understanding of our communities, and all the kind of inner-city pressures that we have to cope with on a daily basis,” she said.
Sally Keeble, a former Labour MP for Northampton North, said: “The way that they’ve drawn the boundaries is likely to deliver the best electoral prospects for the Tories, which literally means you’re rewarding failure.
“Also quite a number of the people who were responsible for what happened both in Northamptonshire [county council] and in Northampton [borough council] are standing for election again. It really beggars belief that the same people are able to sit and run the same authorities.”
In the town of Corby, which was previously the only Labour-led authority in the county and the only council to vote against the restructuring plans, there are also concerns about being incorporated into what will probably become a Conservative-controlled authority.
“Corby has got its own culture and traditions, it’s got its own needs. I think there are a number of towns scared their voices are going to be lost in this,” said Matt Keane, a Labour candidate and former mayor of Corby. Families in the town have already been hit with a council tax bill increase as reduction schemes across different council areas were brought together.
After an Ofsted report in 2019 which found child protection services in Northamptonshire were failing to keep children safe, these will remain under the control of an independent children’s trust, led since December by Colin Foster.
“It’s been the hardest few months of my professional life, if I’m honest; it’s been really tough. But we’re already making improvements and I feel quite hopeful about the future,” said Foster. “This is the best chance Northamptonshire has had in about eight years to be what communities deserve.”
Northampton Conservatives were contacted for comment.