The latest news from the Independent Group
The Independent Group supports the LGA’s cross-party submission to the NPPF consultation. The aim of this response is to emphasise the issues that are important to our members.
Check the key messages on our website.
Group bulletin: 09 January 2023 has details of the Group Leader’s Year in Review 2022.
Our democracy does not need tampering with this close to an election. Both the Electoral Commission and the Association of Electoral Administrators went to the unusual lengths of a full report, pointing out why these changes at less than six months out, puts our democratic system at risk. Despite these representations and those from the Local Government Association, the requirement for Photo ID has now been passed by Parliament on Monday and Tuesday this week and will be moving into law.
Requiring everyone to bring a specific form of photo ID to the election on May 3rd has significant consequences.
And for what? Although not huge, the biggest source of fraud is in the postal votes, and that is totally unchanged. To postal vote fraudulently, you don’t have to appear in person at an official desk with police ready at the touch of a button, to make just one vote. In 2019, there was just one prosecution of someone impersonating another.
Changing this close to the election is unnecessary, expensive, and too late, being within the six months needed to make any changes.
Checking photo ID takes longer, requires a room and staff to unveil head coverings (for people wearing them for religious and/or cultural reasons), more training and a lot more public engagement.
Even then, some people do not have or do not carry the right photo ID. Those who are not keen on bureaucracy are now asked to go through a new more complicated process to acquire a piece of paper called a “Voter authority certificate”. Mm, will they really do that? Or just take it that it has been made difficult and their vote isn’t really wanted?
My Council, North Kesteven, was one of the pilots. We spent a great deal of money advertising that voter ID would be needed. Turnout was not impressive. Some people were turned away and not all of them returned. Long queues formed. The extra time taken means the number of people per polling station should be less.
A review of polling stations is therefore needed, with statutory consultation periods and with the added complication of moving people to other polling stations.
Voting needs to be simple and safe with minimal barriers. Voter ID is damaging at this short notice, so close to widespread elections.
This leaves Local Government picking up the pieces and trying to make the system work as best we can. Additional resources will certainly be needed.
Cllr Marianne Overton MBE
Leader of the Local Government Association Independent Group
It is with great sadness that we heard of the passing of Her Majesty the Queen. Our sincere condolences to her family.
Britain’s longest-reigning monarch and figurehead over seven decades, the Queen demonstrated the very essence of unstinting public service, winning hearts and minds wherever she went. She will be much missed as Head of State, Commonwealth and us all.
Leading Independent Councillors across England are calling on the government to take urgent action against the rising number of covid infection across the country.
As numbers covid cases continue to increase across the country, many Independent Council Leaders are demanding swift action as we approach winter.
Cllr Marianne Overton MBE, Leader of the Independent Group at the Local Government Association says:
‘The government needs to be clear that ‘hands, face and space’ is still very much needed, to avoid a more rapid rise of covid cases. Ministers’ silence on sensible actions or any plan B, is an insult to the many people and businesses who are suffering with the impact of covid - much of which is avoidable if simple measures are taken.’
Cllr David Hitchiner, Leader of Herefordshire Council says: “It is hard to reconcile the Government’s lack of action when Public Health experts are expressing significant concerns about Covid. How long will the Government continue to ignore the need for action and put more residents at risk?”.
Cllr Don Davies, Leader of North Somerset Council adds:
‘Many in the west country have contracted covid because of the failings in the testing centre in Wolverhampton, releasing an estimated 43,000 covid sufferers unknowingly into the population. The government needs to be held to account for the mistakes made there and the many people who have caught this disease because of it.’
Responding to todays budget, Cllr Marianne Overton MBE, Leader of the Local Government Association Independent Group says:
‘Today’s budget was a prime opportunity to drive our country’s urgent green ambitions for a secure future. But there was hardly a mention of the most pressing issue facing us today. That’s with COP26 upon us and recent UN findings this week announcing we are falling woefully short of our targets and the planet is on “code red”.
Instead we see air travel duty cut, and the same old “build, build, build” mentality, with little regard to local need. There seems to be a refocus on building houses for economic gain, without anything to ensure developers build for a zero carbon future, insulation grants nor protection of nature and biodiversity: A missed opportunity for generations to come.’
It helps there is to be more money to tackle rough sleeping and to fix our potholes. But if we are left short on our biggest costs, the only holes we will be filling will be those in the desperately needed care budget.
The secure long-term funding needed for care is not there. Instead, the government requires us to subsidise more people with more assets, greatly increasing the demand for funds, when we were already short. Councils are expected to raise funds from Council tax, from people who are already paying more national insurance tax as well.
When the government gives away business rates, they also give away Council incomes, otherwise in receipt of half of the money.
We welcome the help on Universal Credit, but the families with children and without work will be the hardest hit, without the flat £20, which has been removed.
“It seems that tax hikes in national insurance and a ‘better than expected economy’ will fuel “growth”, inflation and wage demands, but do little for the future of our wellbeing.”
Responding to today’s Budget, Cllr Marianne Overton MBE, Leader of the LGA Independent Group says:
‘Today’s budget was a prime opportunity to set out our country’s urgent green ambitions for a secure future. If funded properly, councils are ideally placed to help address the climate emergency we face. Instead we see domestic air travel duty cut, big road infrastructure projects funded and a continued focus on building houses without anything to ensure developers build for a zero carbon future, insulation grants or protection of nature and biodiversity: a missed opportunity for generations to come.’
Cllr Sarah Rouse, Independent Leader of Malvern Hills DC and Member of the LGA Independent Group Executive said of this year’s local election results:
‘This was an unprecedented year of elections and despite many challenges - not only holding and standing in elections during a pandemic, but government campaigning guidance that unfairly benefitted the big parties and the media focus on national politics - Independents and smaller parties won 308 seats, winning in many new areas and bolstering their position in others, as in my own patch.
‘The Green Party have also had significant success, winning votes from across the political spectrum and making significant gains.
‘Independents, Greens and smaller party candidates are clearly trusted to represent residents and deliver the solutions our communities need.
‘Our members put people before politics, offer a credible alternative to the big Westminster parties and improve our democracy. What we need now is an electoral system that more fairly represents the way people vote.’
Responding to the local election results over the weekend, a spokesperson for the LGA Independent Group said:
‘In this most extraordinary year, it wasn’t just the Conservatives gaining seats but in many areas, residents turned away from the big parties and favoured truly local candidates.
‘Despite the local elections being dominated by national issues, Independent, Green and smaller party councillors not only kept seats but continue to increase in number as does the number of councils they run. Ten years ago only a handful of councils fell outside of the big three Westminster parties, now 69 councils either have an Independent, Green or Plaid Cymru leader (35 councils) or members sitting in the wider administration (34 councils).
‘By putting people before politics Independents, Green Councillors and smaller party members are enriching our democracy and showing across the country there is a credible alternative that isn’t subject to a party whip.’
In response to the High Court judgement that remote meetings cannot take place, a spokesperson for the LGA Independent Group says:
‘This ruling is extremely disappointing. Councils have repeatedly made a very strong case for the continuation of remote and hybrid meetings, particularly while covid-19 restrictions still apply, and the many benefits they bring longer-term. The ability to hold remote meetings makes local government more democratic, more accessible and more representative. They also benefit the environment and can be a more efficient use of officer and member time.
‘The government had plenty of opportunity to bring forward the primary legislation required to formally extend the ability to hold remote meetings but decided not to. They did however allow parliamentarians to meet remotely until at least the 21st June 2021.
‘We now hope the government’s call for evidence gathers the information needed to convince Ministers that councils should have the ability to hold remote or hybrid meetings where most appropriate.’
The LGA’s statement can be found on the LGA website along with the survey results of 243 English Councils which found 83% would be very likely or fairly likely to conduct meetings online or as a hybrid meeting after the pandemic was over, if able.
Approaching the local elections in May, Cllr Clive Woodbridge, Deputy Group Leader, and Treasurer Cllr Paul Woodhead, spoke to the Guardian Newspaper about the steady growth in Independents.
Data from the Democracy Club shows that the number of candidates choosing to stand for a minor party jumped from 1015 in 2019 to 1787 in 2021 while the number of people standing as an Independent is also increasing.
Cllr Woodbridge said: “At the moment there are about 2,300 councillors that are independent or small party representatives, which is about 11.3% of the number of councillors in total. Ten years ago that figure was only about 7%... it reflects a trend for people locally to turn against the big parties and concentrate on local issues which matter to them. Independents are able to put people before politics better than parties. Most of them don’t have a whip, for example, so can always vote according to their conscience and what matters to their residents.”
Cllr Woodhead, speaking about his group in Cannock Chase said: “We saw that if you strip away the politics, people just get on. They do things and achieve things and the neighbourliness comes through.’
Responding to today’s Budget announced by The Chancellor, Cllr Marianne Overton MBE says:
‘Todays Budget starts to set out a long road to economic recovery, supporting some areas through the Towns Fund and ‘levelling up’ pots. However grants and bids are not a sustainable way to support our communities. We continue to call for our full costs and loss of income from government coronavirus restrictions to be covered so that Councils can do their job at the heart of local recovery efforts.
‘It is disappointing that a sustainable solution to the social care crisis has been delayed further and there is a missed opportunity not to focus more on the opportunities available through green investment.
‘To fully recover and prosper following this pandemic we must focus on more than just growth – we need greater investment in our environment, health and wellbeing.’
Following the publication of updated guidance on campaigning ahead of the local elections in May, now allowing doorstep campaigning from 8 March, Cllr Marianne Overton MBE said;
“It is disappointing that we have lost weeks following the previous guidance, prohibiting doorstep leafletting despite commercial activity being ok. However we are delighted that the Minister has heard our representations and u-turned on the policy to allow covid safe campaigning. It has been a big effort and thank you to all who have made representations.”
In response to the guidance issued by the Cabinet Office confirming local elections will take place on the 6 May 2021, Cllr Marianne Overton MBE Leader of the Local Government Association Independent Group says:
‘It is helpful to finally see the government committing to a date for the local elections, following a lot of uncertainty for councils and candidates. We must now ensure that there is a level playing field for all candidates as we approach May 6th.
‘Current guidance excluding candidates from doorstep campaigning must end immediately. It is entirely counter-productive to getting people engaged in using their democratic right. Local Councils affect almost all of our lives, from education and public health to supporting the economy, keeping the standard of our roads, tackling flooding and keeping people safe and care. It is vital local people are informed properly to use their vote to decide who should best represent them. If leaflets by post are allowed, then covid-safe leaflet delivery must logically be allowed too, especially when it includes information and contacts useful for residents during the covid period.
‘Most Independents fund their own campaigns. Posting leaflets even in bulk remains beyond the reach of most Independent and smaller party councillors. Marketing systems are a poor relation to the face-to-face conversations our members and residents value. The election is more than just one day or the few weeks prior to it. Therefore the guidance being developed for candidates must be expedited and ensure a level playing field, starting with an end the current advantages being given to the big Westminster parties and their marketing machines.’
In response to the latest guidance from the Cabinet Office regarding doorstep campaigning Cllr Marianne Overton MBE, Leader of the LGA Independent Group said:
‘I read this guidance on with significant concern. The government states that the current covid ‘restrictions do not support door to door campaigning or leafleting by individual political party activists’, yet this disproportionately disadvantages Independent and smaller party candidates who may not have the benefit of funding for big postal campaigns.
‘On the same day that Councillors read this letter, they were receiving newsletters through the post by Party MPs, not providing a ministerial update or even an update on Westminster activity, but party-political updates, with the upcoming local elections clearly in mind, reinforcing party lines.
‘If we do not have a level playing field, which includes safe and covid-secure interaction with residents, then our democratic engagement is undermined and it risks being a battle of the marketing experts.
‘My residents, as I’m sure you do, receive multiple leaflets a day from local businesses and it would be counter-intuitive to exclude our members from informing residents of the activities of their local representatives and information on dealing with covid.
‘I have therefore ask Ministers to reconsider this approach to limit our democracy.'
Last year the government introduced rules, in response to covid-19, which allow councils to hold meetings remotely. However these regulations run out on the 7 May and primary legislation is required for remote meetings to continue.
In response to the growing concern about the future of council meetings during the pandemic Cllr Marianne Overton MBE, Leader of the LGA Independent Group said:
‘Independent Group members across the country are very concerned by the lack of commitment to bring forward the required legislation to extend the right for councillors to meet remotely. Given that social distancing is going to be required for some time and our imminent annual meetings in May, we need this legislation as a matter of urgency.
‘Without the required extension many members, for no fault of their own, will be unable to properly represent their residents and could ultimately be dismissed from the council under the six-month rule. This would be a flagrant insult to local democracy and one easily avoided.
‘Our group is therefore calling on the government to bring forward the legislation to rectify this unintentional consequence of current covid restrictions’.
Responding to today’s Spending Review announcement, Cllr Marianne Overton MBE, Leader of the LGA Independent Group says:
‘Our Independent Group members have been very clear in what was needed from the Spending Review, starting with certainty. The Chancellor’s statement of only one year falls short.
‘Announcements on homelessness, the towns fund, supporting victims of domestic abuse and additional support for Councils are welcome, but is not all new money and does not go anything like far enough. The increased “spending power” promised to councils of 4.5% by 2021/22, will only be achieved by Councils raising their taxes, neither certain or sustainable, and the ‘Levelling-up’ should not be a bidding process or require MP sign-off.
‘Our council staff have worked to keep the country running and should have been properly recognised, they are now ‘thanked’’ with a standstill income.
‘The Chancellor also missed an opportunity to recommit to the green agenda, which has to be more than words on the page. Conflicting with recently announced plans for the environment is the continuing policy of “build, build build” and an insistence of pushing a planning policy that creates a developers’ charter. Our world deserves better.’
Ahead of the 2020 Spending Review being announced tomorrow (25 November), Independent Leaders are calling on The Chancellor to recognise the vital contribution local government has made to our nation’s fight against covid.
Cllr Marianne Overton MBE, Leader of the LGA Independent Group says:
‘Since the start of the year councils have responded admirably to the pandemic while also managing to provide rubbish collections; support test and trace; safeguard our vulnerable and isolated; organise and distribute food deliveries; support our businesses; respond to increased pressure on the social care system; keep our schools and parks open and safe, support our leisure and arts facilities as best we can and respond to new announcements on planning and reorganisation all while preparing for our transition from the EU and everything that entails.
‘Despite the welcome funding that has come to councils to date, many still face significant uncertainty as they approach next year’s budgets. Councils can make a critical contribution to the economic, social and environment recovery our country needs, but need to be adequately funded to do so.
‘LGA analysis finds councils face a funding gap of over £1bn this year and over £5bn by 2023/24 just to maintain current service levels even if council tax increases by 2 per cent each year and grants increase in line with inflation. That is why the LGA is calling for an extra £8.7bn to plug funding gaps, meet current pressures and improve services for the future.
‘Independent Leaders in councils across the country are calling for:
- Sustainable, long term certainty in regards to funding for councils
- Parity with the NHS when it comes to clearing all of the costs incurred due to covid-19
- Recognising and acknowledging care and public health workers, alongside NHS staff
- Ensuring support reaches those families not in receipt of benefits but on low, unreliable incomes
- Greater clarity on the funding announced for the leisure sector
- Confirmation of plans to fill gaps within the current furlough scheme and better support those on zero hours contracts negatively impacted by reduced hours, especially in the arts, retail and hospitality industries over the Christmas period
‘We hope that Wednesday’s announcement reflects the contribution of all of our councils to date and recognises their critical importance in our future recovery.’
In response to plans set out in the Sunday Telegraph on the government’s forthcoming planning proposals, Cllr Marianne Overton MBE, Leader of the LGA Independent Group said:
‘The government’s squeeze on local councils now extends to centralising planning in a framework, where local decision-making could become a thing of the past and leave local residents without a proper voice.
Robert Jenrick MP announced his new policy in a letter to the Sunday Times yesterday after being in front of MP’s recently for over-riding local planning, giving permission for development and enabling a party donor to avoid paying the Council over £30m in contributions to local community infrastructure.
He says planning is “slow and outdated” with “red tape”, because big and complicated applications have to provide information about their impact on the environment, on local people, on highways - the things councillors and residents care about. Local people then have information and two or three weeks to speak up, to point out impacts that might otherwise be missed. Local decision-makers are then properly informed. Applications can be rejected or improved with conditions applied to mitigate the problems.
Is that really something we want to do away with? The “outdated, red tape” being cut here is our informed democratic voice.
Around 90 per cent of applications are assessed quickly and passed without even going to committee. Small, straight-forward developments get passed very quickly, within a month. Larger developments of perhaps 1,500 houses may take many years to sell and build. Yet the whole planning process takes a maximum of just eight or 13 weeks depending on the size of the application, a relatively quick part of the whole process.
The myth that planning is holding up development is absurd. Permissions for a million homes over the past decade have not been built, and many remain homeless.
Councils need freedoms to once again build affordable homes to rent, set their own discounts for resale, and finance to provide essential support services.
The planning system is about local, democratic decision-making and we cannot afford to allow this to slip away further into Whitehall.’
Launch of the UK Local Government Programme on Civility in Public Life
The LGA, along with the other local government associations around the UK, recently launched a national programme on civility in public life.
Speaking at the event, Councillor Marianne Overton MBE said:
‘Through the launch of the LGA’s toolkit to encourage women, parents and carers into local politics early in 2019, it became clear that one of the significant barriers for many people, particularly women, was the expected high level of negative comments, intimidation, threats and abuse; made especially easy and direct with the rise of social media.
‘We heard about how the abuse levelled at councillors affected their parents, brothers, sisters, children and family members. We heard about fears for their children’s safety and wellbeing. We heard stories of councillors having to move house, having police protection, panic alarms installed, cars and homes attacked, personal threats, death threats and attacks. We heard a frustration that more could not be done to protect councillors and stop the perpetrators. We lamented the impact on our democracy.
‘This is why, at the recent UK Forum, I presented a proposal for a UK-wise response and am very grateful and heartened that local government across our four countries is now working together on this programme, which we have called Civility in Public Life, with a public-facing campaign called #DebatenotHate.’
You can find out more about this work on the LGA’s website: www.local.gov.uk/civility-public-life
Following the General election, Cllr Marianne Overton MBE, Leader of the LGA Independent Group said:
‘Last night over 1200 Independent and smaller party candidates stood for election. I want to congratulate their efforts and the incredibly hard work that goes into running a campaign without a big party machine behind you.
The message on the doorsteps was one of strong support for local candidates, but in the final days, it seems we were overwhelmed by a drive to settle Brexit and avoid Mr Corbyn. Against this tide, the number of votes cast and the gains made in areas like East Devon and Ashfield demonstrate what can be done.
To break the two party dominance currently facing England and Wales, we need to make our electoral system fully representative of the votes cast.
Electoral reform isn’t a peripheral issue, it’s central to our democracy. We must ensure every vote matters.’