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Will it be independents' day?

By This is Devon  |  Posted: April 21, 2011

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Adam Wilshaw explains what you need to know about the North Devon Council elections.

EVERY election has its big question and in North Devon in 2011 it's probably this: will this year mark the return of the independent candidate?

Hard to say, of course. But disillusionment with Lib Dems and Tories might well usher in a new era of non-party political working at the civic centre in Barnstaple.

Certainly in the 1980s and as recently as 2007 the Tories were very much a minority, surrounded by independents and Lib Dems.

Many independents had, however, political inclinations and tended to side with one party or the other.

What is more likely in May, perhaps, is a tweak, rather than a revolution, with many familiar faces re-elected by minorities of electors.

A new situation of "no overall control" might seem a safe bet.

For it's worth bearing in mind that a majority of people do not vote in local elections in North Devon.

The reasons why are mixed. Some see local government's powers being entirely defined by MPs sitting in London and doubt that any councillor can make much of a difference.

Others are actively hostile to local politics, while others simply don't care.

In 2007, 60 per cent of electors – about 51,000 people – in North Devon did not vote for their district councillor.

But once councillors are elected, they have a duty to represent all of the people, not just those who support them.

And many of those who do vote will know that an effective and reliable councillor who values open democracy can make changes, often by influencing events rather than making executive decisions.

North Devon is a culturally conservative district, which tends to stick with known faces, as shown by the number of "veteran" members who are returned year after year.

North Devon Council has 43 members who are elected every four years.

They are elected to make informed decisions in the best interests of the wider community. Judgement comes at the ballot box.

At the moment, North Devon Council has 22 Conservative members, 17 Lib Dems, three independents, and one non-aligned.

The authority is controlled by the Conservative group and only Conservative councillors (apart from one independent) sit on the executive committee, which makes many key decisions.

The council has been controlled by the Conservatives since the last election, in 2007, because they won the largest number of seats.

Before that, the Lib Dems dominated, but there was a form of power sharing.

At the 2003 election, the Lib Dems won the greatest number of seats.

Then, Derrick and Liz Spear were the two shock Lib Dem casualties, as the Conservatives doubled their council representation.

After ballot papers from the 24 contested wards across the district were tallied up, the Tories had won ten seats.

But despite losing five seats, the Lib Dems maintained the council majority, with 22 representatives.

In addition to the Lib Dem and Tory seats, UKIP had a member, Michael Pagram, serving for the first time in the council's history.

In the late-1980s and early 1990s, unemployment was high in North Devon and there was anger about the Conservative government.

There was a new Lib Dem MP, Nick Harvey, in 1992 and local election records show that councillors who later went on to become Conservative members were standing then as independents.

At the 1999 election, with Tony Blair installed in Downing Street for two years, 25 Lib Dems were elected, along with 13 independents, and just five Tories.

In the past four years, party politics has become more dominant at North Devon Council, for good or ill, with councillors voting strongly on party lines on key decisions, such as planning applications.

For the May 2011 elections, there are 36 Conservative candidates, 33 Lib Dems, 20 Independents, 17 Greens, 10 Labour, two TUSC Against Cuts, one Communist, and one UKIP vying for North Devon Council seats.

At times of local elections there is often debate about the relationship between council results and national politics.

These links are difficult to prove but the Conservatives did tend to do worse in North Devon during the ascendency of New Labour and the consolidation of Lib Dems as a West Country force.

One common claim is the national government of the day gets a kicking in local elections, so that could mean bad news for Conservatives and Lib Dems this time around, thanks to the coalition arrangement.

A number of candidates have left their party colours behind to stand as independents, including Lib Dem veteran Malcolm Prowse.

In historic terms, Labour has never had any clout in North Devon.

At general elections, its share of the vote has continued to decline since the 1940s. Similarly, on local authorities it has been the Liberals, Tories, and independents who win the wards. Fringe groups such as the BNP and Greens tend to fail.

The district council has very limited powers. It is responsible for rubbish collection, recycling, street cleaning, certain areas of planning, environmental health, and licensing.

It sold its housing stock in 2000 but still has a role as a "strategic" authority, which means monitoring local housing needs.

It also owns a number of assets, such as car parks and buildings, and pays large subsidies to organisations such as the North Devon Theatres Trust.

Local government is defined in all aspects by the powers it is given by central government. Its planners have to abide by national planning policy, for example.

Crucially, councillors are given expert advice by professional officers before making any decisions. Whether they accept that expert advice or not is another matter.

Many key "council" functions – such as education, social care and highways – are dealt with by Devon County Council, which is based in Exeter. The election in May is nothing to do with the county council.

In terms of council tax, about 70 per cent goes to the county council and only about 10 per cent to North Devon Council.

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    Joanna Giffard, Chelfham  |  April 22 2011, 2:35PM

    This is a very interesting well-written piece. North Devon's recent political history is now full of twists and turns - but the 16 years of Malcolm Prowse's steady leadership till 2007, raised North Devon's profile in the region, and brought calm cross-party cooperation to the council's executive. It's a shame that the Conservatives have not seen it that way, and have taken all the power to themselves.