Councillors back a second postponement of elections to Northampton Borough Council

Elections to Northampton Borough Council look set to be cancelled for a second year in a row after the authority agreed to support the government’s proposals to postpone them.

Tuesday, 23rd July 2019, 6:01 pm
Northampton Borough Council will write to the government and raise no objections to the postponement of its election in 2020

Voters had already been denied a visit to the ballot box in May this year, despite councillors coming to the end of their four-year term after being elected back in 2015.

The May 2019 elections were suspended due to the likelihood of a new unitary authority being established in 2020, but it has now been confirmed that the creation of West Northamptonshire Council – which will replace the borough and the county council – will be delayed by a further year until April 2021.

That announcement sparked a letter from the secretary of state for local government, James Brokenshire, seeking the views of the council on whether to suspend the elections for a second year running.

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Had the election gone ahead, residents would have been voting for a councillor for the only remaining year of the borough council while also voting for a councillor on the new unitary authority – which would start the following summer.

A draft response was written up on behalf of borough chief executive George Candler, which said that residents would find the different elections ‘too confusing’. And Conservative councillors last night (July 22) voted through the response supporting the postponement.

The full council meeting had got off to a vexed start when Labour councillor Gareth Eales questioned whether the council was not following its own constitution given that councillors were serving beyond the four-year term they were elected for. He called for the meeting to be suspended and the council to be dissolved.

But monitoring officer Francis Fernandes said that a parliamentary order to suspend the 2019 election trumped the council’s constitution.

Councillor Eales said: “The denial of an election is simply unacceptable and for me in clear breach of the council’s constitution. If we’re saying that this doesn’t breach it, I shall complain to the Local Government Ombudsman and encourage all citizens to do the same. We will not let the issue rest and legal avenues are being investigated.”

Resident Norman Adams also had his say, telling councillors: “This is the first time I have addressed a room full of squatters. Every time I hang up the megaphone, something happens to make me dust it off and check the batteries. This time it’s democracy being undermined.

“I would prefer that you all do the right thing and go back to the electorate. But failing that each and every one of you has it in your gift to resign and have by-elections. Who, if any of you, will take the moral high ground and return to your wards for endorsement?”

Council leader Jonathan Nunn admitted that the scenario was not an ideal one, but that it had been the government’s suggestion to potentially postpone next year’s elections. He added that at a cost of £290,000, holding an election for the solitary year left in the council’s existence may not be the best use of taxpayers’ money.

But Councillor Eales questioned the quoted cost, saying: “We’re hearing a lot of red herrings. Let’s start with cost. It won’t cost anything extra. There are PCC and parish council elections taking place as well. Will it really cost more than £200k to print an extra ballot card. What are you printing them on? Gold?”

Councillors then debated the response the authority should send. Liberal Democrat leader Sally Beardsworth said: “It’s so difficult to explain to the public what’s going on. They’re asking when they get to have a vote. We have little say on this. It’s being forced on us by government.”

And Labour leader Danielle Stone added: “I wonder what it would take for this administration to stand up to the government. Everyone knows that this is wrong.”

But deputy Conservative leader Phil Larratt responded: “I have every sympathy with what has been said. But we don’t know what the structural change order [the legislation setting up the new unitary authority] will say. It may leave this council with very little power. What would be the point of having an election for a council with no power?”

The government will ultimately have the final say however, as it did in postponing them for 2019.