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KCC's upcoming 'Super Thursday' elections, the potential end of virtual council meetings and the FOI that is a 'global threat'


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Anyone looking for signs of a seismic shift in the political landscape in Kent at the forthcoming county council election is likely to be disappointed, writes political editor Paul Francis.

There is no likelihood of a major upheaval that would see the Conservatives deprived of control in what remains a true blue heartland.

Voters will be going to the polls in Kent on May 6
Voters will be going to the polls in Kent on May 6

The one unpredictable element is the coronavirus crisis but the success of the vaccination programme – albeit with qualifications – has placed the Conservative party in a far better position than it might have been.

That is not to say the election will be a walk in the park but there is no doubt the ‘vaccine bounce’ has come at just the right time.

That may sound cavalier and the government is anxious not to be seen as too opportunistic by using the progress it has made to electoral advantage.

So far as KCC is concerned, the Conservatives look a safe bet but it would do well to better its overwhelming victory in 2017 when it romped to victory and ended up with 63 of the seats.

If it gets anywhere near that figure this time, it would be regarded as a resounding victory.

Sir Keir Starmer who has put nurses' pay at the forefront of Labour's local election campaigning
Sir Keir Starmer who has put nurses' pay at the forefront of Labour's local election campaigning

The challenge for Labour is that it is fighting on difficult political terrain. County council elections have never been happy hunting ground.

While leader Sir Keir Starmer has steadied the ship, he is in the politically invidious position of backing the government over its vaccine programme.

His appeal to voters to treat the poll as a referendum on nurses' pay seems to have lost momentum and there is little evidence that it has got much political traction.

Having said that, the party could make some advances in parts of the county where it once had Labour MPs – Gravesham looks like being closely contested and there may be gains in places such as Thanet and Dover.

The party is managing expectations down but if it loses ground in these areas, there could be some awkward questions for the party leadership.

The election campaign has begun to win one of the 81 seats up for grabs at County Hall in Maidstone
The election campaign has begun to win one of the 81 seats up for grabs at County Hall in Maidstone

As to the Liberal Democrats, the party’s focus will be defending the seven seats it holds in west Kent.

It fared less well than had been predicted in 2017 but could spring the odd surprise.

The one question that cannot be answered is whether there will be a spike in infection rates as the next phase of the government’s route map unfolds.

And if there is, how might it affect the election?

Councillors attending a virtual meeting. Stock image
Councillors attending a virtual meeting. Stock image

Should councils be allowed to continue holding virtual meetings? Most councils have adopted this as a way of continuing their day-to-day business during the pandemic.

It hasn’t been an unqualified success: tuning in to some KCC meetings, they have sometimes resembled meetings of the old Soviet politburo, with little dissent and ghost-like councillors, looking like Headless Nick from the Harry Potter novels, making leaden speeches about how great things are.

On the plus side, it has at least allowed the public to keep abreast of what their council is up to without leaving the comfort of their own homes and that is no bad thing.

Now the government is insisting that councils go back to normal practice and resume face-to-face meetings. This seems a retrograde step in the digital world. Perhaps the solution is for the government to fund councils to allow them to webcast meetings, as KCC does.

The viewing figures may not be great but if webcasting is good enough for the Commons, it ought to be good enough for councils.

An FOI request about the post-Brexit lorry park at Sevington, near Ashford, resulted in a surprising response. Picture: Barry Goodwin
An FOI request about the post-Brexit lorry park at Sevington, near Ashford, resulted in a surprising response. Picture: Barry Goodwin

As reasons for turning down a Freedom of Information request, the grounds for refusing one submitted to the Environment Agency takes some beating.

Its refusal notice to a request by us for details of any environmental impact study it had carried out on the site of the Sevington lorry park near Ashford cited a potential global threat. Yes, a global threat.

How come?

“Disclosure of these details would not contribute to sustainable development, nor to public health and safety; in fact do we consider that the opposite is true, in that making technical detail available to the world at large would risk damage to the environment, and possibly a threat to human life and to property,” said the response.

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