An election official stacks plastic boxes at a vote counting centre in Margate, southeast England
An election official stacks plastic boxes at a vote counting centre in Margate, southeast England © AFP

The Conservatives have tightened their grip on England’s local councils after Thursday’s elections, echoing their success at national government level.

Large swaths of England’s local authority map are now blue, partly as a result of the Tories winning enough wards in many places to gain dominance of councils where previously no party had overall control.

With counting now virtually completed, Labour in England has been pinned back mainly to two belts: London (which did not hold council elections last week) and its traditional northern heartlands. The Lib Dems, whose power base has in the past drawn strength from diligent local activism, now control only six English councils.

For the UK Independence party and the Greens, the local and national elections provided mixed results. While Nigel Farage failed to win the parliamentary seat of South Thanet, triggering his decision to stand down as leader, his party on Saturday learned it had won its first council, Thanet district.

Ukip made a net gain of 179 councillors across England but this fell well short of the 400 it had hoped to achieve.

The Greens lost their only local authority, Brighton & Hove, to no overall control; Labour is now the council’s largest single party. However, Caroline Lucas was re-elected as the party’s only MP, for Brighton Pavilion, with a greatly increased majority.

According to figures from the Local Government Information Unit, a local democracy think-tank, in the 279 councils that held elections last week, the Conservatives won control of 28 while Labour lost three and the Lib Dems four. The Tories gained almost 500 councillors, Labour lost 179 and the Lib Dems 365.

In the 34 councils where the results brought no overall control, the coming days will mean intense negotiations on how they will be run. But the results mean the Tories now control 192 of England’s 353 councils.

“It is like the party has tightened its grip — it’s a squeeze rather than a surge,” said Jonathan Carr-West, chief executive of the LGIU. The general election result should not have been such a surprise, he added; in the last few years, the Tories have been making gains in local elections.

In a late bright spot for Labour, the party snatched Cheshire West and Chester from the Tories, an authority that is largely adjacent to George Osborne’s Tatton constituency.

But the Tories gained a councillor in Trafford, the only Tory-run council of the 10 Greater Manchester authorities awarded devolution powers under the chancellor’s vision of a northern powerhouse.

Mr Carr-West predicted increasingly vocal demands from councils throughout England for greater devolution of powers and decision-making. Many rural and Conservative councils are sceptical about the present combined authority model the government has pursued, he says.

He added: “They are saying, why are you giving all this stuff to Labour councils in the north?”

Local areas, he said, must now propose their own models for the devolution they need.

A continuing strong local government presence, delivering key services which influence voters’ daily lives, will be vitally important to Labour and the Lib Dems as they assess their futures and try to rebuild after their general election losses.

Mr Carr-West said that for Labour, “that deliberation will be shaped by what they actually do in the large parts of the country that they do run”. As for the Lib Dems: “Their future as a party will depend on whether they can hang on to their local base. If they cannot, their road to recovery becomes increasingly difficult.”

From 2010-15, austerity measures imposed on local councils resulted in cuts and efficiency savings worth £20bn. The next five years look certain to deliver more budget cuts, potentially as much again as in the last parliament.

“Over the last five years it’s been a pretty brutal, thankless task,” says Mr Carr-West. But, he believes, many councillors are motivated by altruism. “People want to serve their communities,” he says.

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