The recent local government elections were seen by most commentators as a referendum on the government’s performance. If that is true it would be fair to conclude from the results that English voters remain broadly satisfied with Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s handing of the pandemic. Clearly the by-election in Hartlepool might be seen in those terms or perhaps as the voters in Hartlepool were 70% Leavers and the Labour party put up a Remainer as its candidate may be more of an indication of satisfaction that Brexit was delivered. In 2019 10,000 voted for the Brexit party but this time just a few hundred so perhaps it was as much about Jeremy Corbyn. The Tories did win three mayoral elections, but Labour won 10 including taking the West of England mayoralty from the Conservatives.
But to me, apart from that by-election, all this is very strange. These are local elections to elect local representatives of local people to deal with local issues. In London the mayoralty is very high-profile because the winner would have had more votes than any other individual political representative in the country. But actually, the powers of the Mayor of London are quite limited. They are basically limited to planning, transport and the police. The Labour Mayor of London Sadiq Khan held on to his office but only gained 40% of the vote in the first round. His record in planning, transport and police is quite dreadful. I live outside London but am affected by certainly transport and policing issues as I travel to London in normal circumstances on a frequent basis relying on public transport and relying on protection by the police from criminal activity. Yet I do not get a vote in these matters.
But I was more interested when looking at the BBC news website my eye was drawn to a feature on the Stockport council elections. Why was that of national interest? Well, the Green party took a Ward from Labour but in looking at the website in more detail I realised that the Ward where I grew up in, Heald Green, had yet again elected an independent councillor representing the Heald Green and Long Lane Ratepayers’ Association. The Heald Green and Long Lane Ratepayers’ Association was formed in a public meeting in December 1927. It was founded to watch over the interests of the residents of the area and to select councillors for the new Ward of Heald Green. In 1929 the Association gained its first councillors. That year was the start of a tradition, whereby all Heald Green councillors have been independent Ratepayers’ councillors, for over 90 years. That is most probably a unique record in the country.
Early issues included the timing of the train which collected the mail, installation of lampposts along Finney Lane and the construction of Etchells school in 1932. During the war the committee worked on evacuation and the provision of War Comforts and Lifeboats. In 1948 there was discussion of a new Public Hall. In 1954 my father was promoted by his firm of quantity surveyors to open a new office in Manchester, and he bought a semi-detached house in Heald Green a few miles outside Manchester and actually in the county of Cheshire. The ‘50s saw a significant house building boom and therefore demand for amenities. My father became aware of the local Ratepayers’ Association and was invited to join its committee.
Despite the demands of his job, he became very active on the committee. In 1962 he started a magazine CONTACT which he edited, produced and engaged his children in helping him deliver it. I even contributed an article in one issue when in 1966 I went on a school trek round Mont Blanc and the headline was misprinted ‘Shoolboys in the Alps.’ That magazine is still going, is delivered free to every house in Heald Green and now nearly 200 issues have been published and over three quarters of a million copies have been delivered.
He also led campaigns by the Association to have built a Clinic and Library in the Village and more recently the Association has won a fresh battle to replace the Clinic with a 21st-century version. My father also led a campaign to put pressure on the council to build a Public Hall which included a theatre that came to fruition in 1963 and its plans contained many of the recommendations put forward by my father and his colleagues. My mother as a keen amateur actress appeared a number of times on that stage.
Heald Green is very close to Manchester Airport which has grown enormously over many years and that has engendered a constant battle with them for decent treatment, resulting in improved noise insulation, vortex damage schemes and a number of operational improvements.
In 1974 Heald Green became part of Stockport but the tradition of electing Ratepayers’ councillors continued. Since then, the Association has supplied three mayors and three deputy mayors. They fought successful battles to stop office developments on Cheadle Royal cricket pitch and Bruntwood Park and block plans for a travellers’ site. The fact is that this long tradition of winning elections for their very own Ratepayers’ councillors puts them in a great position to fight for their interests.
It is not always just about battles. They are also involved in regular, everyday work to make Heald Green a better place. Examples include running and maintaining the CCTV system in the Village, monitoring and maintaining the defibrillator at the Village Hall, installing their Village Crib, adding Christmas lights to the Village, running the annual Christmas Eve Carols Round the Tree, running the Heald Green Remembrance Service, organising floral displays in the Village tubs, helping to run the Heald Green Festival, etc. Currently, they have responded to the coronavirus pandemic by organising a Heald Green wide assistance service for anyone needing help.
People all over Stockport often express jealousy of what they have in Heald Green. In the latest election the Ratepayers candidate for Heald Green, Anna Mary Charles-Jones received 54% of the total vote. The Labour Party candidate got 16%, the Conservative Party candidate 13%, the Liberal Democrats 10% and the Green party 6%. The three Ratepayers’ councillors on the Stockport council are the only independent councillors. Of the 20 other Wards all elected candidates from the national political parties but the Ratepayers Association is not a political party.
To my mind this is what local politics should be about. It should not try to reflect national politics which deal with very different issues. A House of Commons that only had independent MPs would get very little business done. Despite its flaws the party system is necessary at the national level, but it is not at the local level and I am dubious to the degree to which local voting can be seen as a referendum on the performance of the national government.