Yesterday was the date for the last cabinet and full council meetings in Basildon before the general election. The sense of resignation went beyond the fact that the Mayor Mo Larkin announced her "retirement". She had started out as a Labour candidate but later became a Lib/Dem councillor before finally taking another step to the right to become a Tory. It was left to Linda Allport-Hodge to make the obvious joke that she may come back next year as part of UKIP, or at least I think it was a joke.
last year UKIP knocked the Conservatives off their majority position by taking 11 seats in the council elections (they now have 9). leaving the Tories with only 17 seats out of 42. This year there are 14 council seats up for re-election of which 6 are Tories and only 1 is UKIP. They therefore have a very good chance to become the biggest party on the council and a mathematical chance to form a majority. Their gains could continue next year because the three year cycle of elections will mean that they will continue to hold onto their seats won in the two previous years. This means that a majority UKIP council 13 months from now is a real possibility.
Even by May this year when the next council meeting takes place UKIP could take the majority share of the cabinet who take the all-important decisions on issues such as planning, but this could be blocked by the rest of the chambre if their is an agreement. What will it mean for Basildon? That is too big a question to consider in full here, but certainly the UKIP style of government is likely to be very different regarding planning. They have pledged to protect the green belt and have a very different position on travellers, but they will still have to work within the policies set by central government and they are forecast to remain with just one seat in parliament. As for the rest of their politics - let's just say opinions differ.
The bigger question then is about what can we expect in Westminster when parliament reopens. The Conservatives are making the strongest pledges to protect the green belt (not counting the Greens of course) but we know from experience that they work with smoke and mirrors. Pickles who wrote the NPPF is a sly politician who has built a policy that works rather differently from the way it reads, even under quite close scrutiny. The key hidden element is the New Homes Bonus which promises to give councils back the money that central government have taken away from them provided they choose to review their green belt a little so that they can extend towns without it showing up as development of the green belt.
Labour are not beyond pulling a trick or two of their own, albeit a little more clumsily than the Tories. Ed Milliband is being widely quoted as saying that "Our position is to keep the planning laws as they are except for one change which is to put brownfield first" However, their manifesto says they will implement the Lyons Review and that includes the "right to grow" policy which has long been seen as a death knell for the green belt. It does not make much difference for individual parliamentary candidates to say that they will fight inappropriate development when their central policy will do the opposite.
At the moment the overall outcome of the election is anybodies guess. A clear majority is unlikely and it is possible that even the most obvious coalitions will not have enough seats. Perhaps we will see the unusual situation in British politics where each new policy has to have a majority favour of MPs across the political spectrum to get through.
Meanwhile, back at the council meeting last night I asked a public question about green belt policy with a very interesting response. Full video and analysis in the next post.