City’s former loyalist Tory MP and minister backs the revolt
UPDATED: The newly formed Independents did win their first seat on the council with Annie Riddle winning a seat in Harnham. But the other candidates failed to win a seat. However the composition of the council has change radically. It was 15 Conservatives, five Labour, one Liberal Democrat, one Independent. It is now no longer a Tory majority council. The new council is now 11 Conservative, 6 Labour, 6 Liberal Democrat and one Independent.
The City of Salisbury is not a natural place to start a revolution. Indeed in the seventeenth century it staged a Royalist revolt against Cromwell and kidnapped its High Sherriff. The last Bishop of Salisbury to be murdered by an unruly mob was William Ayscough in 1450. And apart from the horrendous Novichok murder and attempted poisonings by Russian spies it is not a place normally associated with sudden dramas.
So it is all the more surprising that this city of 45,000 people which has returned Conservative MPs without fail since 1924 should suddenly be facing a challenge to its Tory status quo in this week’s local elections.
And even more extraordinary that a man who is advocating change is former Tory minister and a long standing former Tory MP for Salisbury, Robert Key. One of the most loyal Tories for over 50 years he now says ” in his old age he is becoming a revolutionary.”
The reason for this sudden grass roots rebellion is local government reform. Whereas much is said about devolution to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, at the local level power is being taken away from England’s towns and small cities like Salisbury, by the creation of mammoth unitary authorities like Wiltshire and Dorset. And more are to come soon in further local government reform. So Wiltshire is governed by officials in Trowbridge, Dorset by Dorchester etc.
It also does seem extraordinary that a city with a cathedral should have no more power than a small rural village parish council in remote Lincolnshire.
Judging from public reaction many people agree. A brand new Facebook page called Save our Salisbury (SOS) has attracted 2600 members and an energetic former journalist and sub editor, Annie Riddle, is among eight Independent candidates standing for the City council. There is also an independent, an ex detective inspector, Mike Rees, challenging the Tory police commissioner for Wiltshire
The current 23 member council has 16 Tories, 5 Labour and one Liberal Democrat. By putting one independent in each of the eight wards – the candidates are telling people to give one of their three votes ( in most cases) to an Independent and not a political party.
What’s the point?
Annie Riddle says in her own blog; “all the main parties have had trouble putting up a full complement of candidates for the local elections in May – largely, I think, because people are disillusioned and ask: “What’s the point?”
Now I’m going to put my money where my mouth is, so to speak, and try to do something to help our community by standing as an independent candidate for the city council in Harnham.”
And it seems to be admitted by the Tories themselves with people like John Brady, former chair of Salisbury Conservative Association saying:
“It is the officers who make the decisions (recommendations). They know that councillors are transient and as with Harnham, where councillors persuaded them to take a proposed development off the Strategic Plan, officers reinstated it as soon as they could when dealing with a different councillor (cabinet member). “All the ‘consultation’ that has to be done is a complete waste of time as I know that this is merely a way of allowing locals to let off steam.”
The situation in Salisbury is not unique. Pressed by issues like houses left empty and an unpopular road closure scheme and people having no say are among the local flash points. A number of small towns in other parts of England are doing the same.
Revolts in other towns
Frome in Somerset in 2015 replaced all its Conservative councillors with Independents for Frome and re-elected them again in 2019. Alderley Edge First in Cheshire did the same – re-electing them on a 42 per cent poll ( high for a parish council) in 2019. Uttlesford near Stansted Airport in Essex, is an Independent majority council – the impetus being concern over the expansion of Stansted Airport.
And some have taken seats from Labour controlled councils such as Ashfield in Nottinghamshire and the mayor of Middlesbrough where an Independent took over from a Labour mayor.
In the last large scale local elections in England in 2019 – across the country Independents gained 250 seats – while the Conservative and Labour parties fell back.
National interest in this year’s elections will be on how Labour and Tories do – whether it is Tory gains in ” Red Wall” seats in the North and Midlands – or whether Labour can make gains elsewhere. The Liberal Democrats and Greens performances will be analysed in areas where they made progress last time.
But beneath all this lies a generally unreported interesting trend in towns and cities – local people standing on local issues – often revolting against the major parties and Big Brother councils in places miles away from where people live. Who said democracy was dead?