Wednesday, 23 January 2013

By-Election Preview: 24 January 2013

There are two local council by-elections on 24th January 2012, both in marginal Conservative/Lib Dem constituencies and both in the sort of small market towns in which the west of England specialises; one in the Somerset Levels, one in the picturesque scenery of Herefordshire.  These wards both appear to be unpredictable and interesting contests in marginal wards, and there is the possibility of some surprising results.  Here is the lowdown.


Highbridge roundabout and town clock
  © Copyright Ken Grainger and licensed for reuse
under this 
Creative Commons Licence.
Sedgemoor District Council, Somerset; caused by the resignation of 25-year-old Liberal Democrat councillor Joe Leach who is now employed in a politically restricted post.

About seven miles north of Bridgwater, Highbridge is the lowest crossing of the River Brue before it empties into the Bristol Channel, and used this location to develop as an important market centre and industrial town.  Highbridge's importance to local transport started in 1801 with the opening of the Glastonbury Canal, which reached the sea here at a small wharf.  The railways came to Highbridge in 1844 and opened a station on what is now the Great Western Main Line (now named Highbridge and Burnham and having an hourly service to Bridgwater, Taunton and Bristol with peak-hour extras to Paddington).  Highbridge became a railway centre in 1854 with the opening of the Highbridge branch of the Somerset and Dorset railway (which had bought out the canal); the Somerset and Dorset established its locomotive works here which became a major local employer.

Highbridge started to decline during the Great Depression, with the locomotive works first to go.  In 1933 the urban district merged with the neighbouring resort town of Burnham-on-Sea, and the two towns continue to share a town council.  The wharf closed shortly after the Second World War as it was too small to handle modern ships.  The livestock market was merged with Taunton's in 2007 and moved to a new site near Bridgwater.  Much of the town's economy today is based on distribution and light engineering, thanks to the town's proximity to the M5 motorway which opened in the 1970s.

Sedgemoor got new ward boundaries in 2011 which makes comparison with previous years rather difficult, although the old Highbridge ward itself was relatively little changed, gaining parts of the urban development which have expanded beyond the town boundary into Burnham Without parish, together with the hamlet of Alstone on the other side of the river.  The expanded ward was renamed Highbridge and Burnham Marine, although the only marine part of the ward is a holiday camp.

Sedgemoor District Council normally has a Conservative majority (except in the 1995 disaster) with a fairly strong Labour opposition, the district's main town of Bridgwater having a solid Labour vote.  Highbridge's electoral history is rather more idiosyncratic.  The Liberal Democrats did well in the ward until the 1999 election when they suffered near-wipeout on the council and the ward turned Labour.  In 2003 the Conservatives split the ward's representation by gaining one of the Labour seats.  The Lib Dems made a comeback in the 2007 election gaining all three seats in the ward, Joe Leach (at the age of 19) topping the poll.  Leach topped the poll again in the 2011 election for the redrawn ward, but the Lib Dems lost the other two seats to ex-Lib Dem independents; Mike Mansfield had been the council's only elected Liberal Democrat member in the 2003 election (from the old Burnham South ward) while Chris Williams had fought Highbridge ward for the Lib Dems in 2003.  The wider county council division of Highbridge and Burnham South saw a Conservative gain from the Lib Dems at the most recent Somerset county council election in 2009, although it's fair to say that the strongest Conservative areas in the division are outside this ward.

The ward is mostly (except for Alstone) part of the Wells parliamentary constituency which was gained by the Liberal Democrats in the 2010 general election.  With Highbridge being one of the more Lib-Dem inclined areas of the constituency, this by-election could be an early pointer as to the result of the 2015 election here.

This ward and its predecessors has elected members of all three main parties and independent councillors in the last ten years, and with the Tories and Labour less than a hundred votes off winning seats here in 2011 this by-election is fascinatingly unpredictable and all five candidates will feel that there is everything to play for.  The Liberal Democrats have selected Burnham-on-Sea and Highbridge town councillor Helen Groves, who was runner-up in the 2011 district election and has received help from Nick Clegg in the campaign.  Two Independent candidates are in the running: one is the colourfully-named Purple Watkins (formerly known as Stephen) who appears to be a theatrical producer recently moved from Southport, the other is Sally Williams whose husband Chris is one of the ward's independent district councillors.  The Tories have added to the Lib Dems' woes by nominating yet another ex-Lib Dem, Bill Hancock, who stood for the district council and was elected to the town council as a Lib Dem in 2011 but is currently sitting on the town council as an independent.  Shockingly, Labour have not selected an ex-Liberal Democrat; their candidate is Ricky Holcombe, a former coal miner.

Helen Groves (LD)
Bill Hancock (C)
Ricky Holcombe (Lab) (@RickyHolco)
Purple Watkins (Ind)
Sally Williams (Ind)

Parliamentary constituency: Bridgwater and West Somerset (Alstone), Wells (rest of ward)
Somerset county council division: Highbridge and Burnham-on-Sea South (part of ward within Burnham-on-Sea and Highbridge parish); Brent (part of ward within Burnham Without parish); Huntspill (Alstone)
ONS Travel to Work Area: Bridgwater

May 2011 result LD 782/528/511 Ind 705/543 C 516/473/471 Lab 451/379/351


Herefordshire Council; caused by the death of Conservative councillor Gordon Lucas at the age of 82.  Lucas, a former mayor of Ross-on-Wye, worked for nearly seven decades selling, servicing and repairing motorcycles, starting work in a motorcycle shop in Hereford at the age of 15 and running Lucas Motor Cycles in Ross for half a century until his death.

Ross on Wye centre
  © Copyright John Phillips and licensed for reuse
under this 
Creative Commons Licence.
A landmark on the main road from the Midlands to South Wales thanks to its location at the end of the M50 motorway, Ross-on-Wye is thought of as the birthplace of the British tourist industry.  The town is located on a horseshoe bend of the River Wye close to the northern end of the Wye Gorge, and at the end of the 17th century local philanthropist John Kyrle established a public garden in the town called The Prospect, which has fantastic views over the river bend and towards the Black Mountains.  Somewhat later the local rector started taking friends on boat trips down the Wye to admire the picturesque scenery; one of the people who took this trip was William Gilpin, whose 1782 book "Observations on the River Wye" was Britain's first illustrated tour guide.  The Herefordshire tourism industry has rarely looked back since then, and it helps that Ross, like many Marches towns, is itself a picturesque town, with many independent shops and a seventeenth-century sandstone Market House.

Like Highbridge, Ross-on-Wye is part of a marginal Conservative/Lib Dem constituency, Hereford and South Herefordshire; unlike Highbridge, that constituency swung the other way at the 2010 general election with a Conservative gain from the Liberal Democrats.  This ward is not one of the more generally Lib Dem-inclined parts of the constituency (their base is in Hereford), the ward's two seats having been split between the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats continuously since 2003.  The Conservatives' Gordon Lucas and the Lib Dems' Christopher Bartrum (who topped the poll) were re-elected in 2011 running so far ahead of their running-mates that third and fourth places were filled by two independent candidates, the It's Our County group (which is well-represented on the council and won the last Herefordshire by-election in a Hereford ward) polling very poorly here.

The by-election is going to be a three-candidate shootout, and with the Conservatives having a majority of one on Herefordshire council there is a lot at stake.  Defending for the Tories is businessman Richard Mayo, who runs a delicatessen on the high street and is founding chairman of the Association of Ross Traders.  He is opposed by the Liberal Democrats' Caroline Bennett, who appears to be a former local government officer who spends a lot of time on TripAdvisor, and the current mayor of Ross David Ravenscroft, who stood in the town's East ward at the 2007 election for the Tories and in 2011 as an independent.

Parliamentary constituency: Hereford and South Herefordshire
ONS Travel to Work Area: Monmouth and Cinderford

Caroline Bennett (LD)
Richard Mayo (C) (
David Ravenscroft (Ind)

May 2011 result LD 617/368 C 597/383 Ind 522/503 It's Our County 97
May 2007 result C 641/494 LD 526/504 Ind 219
May 2003 result LD 746/709 C 736/653 Ind 653/423

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