Published: 15:23, 07 May 2021
| Updated: 10:48, 10 May 2021
The Conservatives romped home to victory in the Kent County Council elections, ending up with 61 of the 81 seats seats - albeit four less than it won last time out.
But one of those losses came in Sittingbourne, in a head-to-head battle between two veteran politicians.
The first result in Swale came in just before 3pm for Swale East, where the Green Party's Rich Lehmann won the seat from the Conservatives.
The ward, which includes all the villages east of Sittingbourne including Bapchild, Conyer, Teynham, Highsted, Lynsted and Newnham, has been represented by Swale council's former leader Andrew Bowles since 2005.
But with the Conservative standing down this year, it was up to Charlotte Whitney-Brown to try to retain the seat for the Tories.
However, Lehmann, 45, a wedding photographer, snapped up 3,067 votes. Whitney-Brown had 2,443 and Labour's Frances Rehal received 420.
The Green Party candidate had vowed to fight for more funding in schools, free school meals for families on Universal Credit and better pay for social workers. He also wants more bus routes and a mobile library and promised to push the the still Tory-controlled KCC to hold them to account on climate and the environment.
But after months of sleepless nights, sometimes waking at 5am and going to sleep at 2am during the campaign trail, he admitted: "I'm looking forward to getting a bit of sleep over the weekend and then starting my new role on Monday."
Rich Lehmann (Green) beat the Conservatives in Swale East
He said it had been a "massive team effort" with "thousands of hours of work" to get the Green message out and added: "I think people voted for me because I tuned into the issues and housing is one of them. People in Swale East are fed up with the Conservatives and the level of building in the area and the threat of more.
"Both our Conservative MPs have put the blame on Swale council but anyone who is politically engaged knows the real reason is the Conservative national housebuilding policy."
In Sittingbourne South, Tory John Wright retained his seat with 1,868 votes (40%).
The Conservative, who said he wanted to tackle highways issues around the Memorial Hospital and find a new hub to replace Phoenix House, was up against Richard Palmer (SIA) who received 1,500 votes, Labour’s Lola Oyewusi, with 765 votes, retired teacher David Walton (Green) with 309 votes, and Lib Dem Alexander Stennings, with 207.
In Sittingbourne North, the Tories retained their seat as well.
Swale councillor Mike Dendor received 42% of the votes (1,695) compared to Labour's Steve Davey, who got 1,021. James Hall (SIA) received 912, the Green Party's Hannah Temple got 218, and Mary Zeng (Lib Dem) received 164.
Cllr Dendor said his top priorities were housing, traffic, infrastructure and traffic near Kent Science Park.
He has been on the council for six years but said he had been involved in the background at the local authority for four decades.
Following the victory Mike said: "I'm pleased about it. I've had 10 years' experience in the business and now I feel I can have some influence in the areas which matter to residents including schools and sorting out school placements in the area, and transport including putting infrastructure first."
Sittingbourne’s Swale West proved a major battleground between sitting Tory Mike Whiting and Swale Independents’ Mike Baldock.
Baldock, who has been at County Hall before, bounced back to steal the seat from Whiting, who held the economic development portfolio on the Cabinet, with 56% of the votes (3,018). Whiting received 2,367. No other party stood to contest the seat.
Again, housing played a major part Baldock, deputy leader of Swale council and in charge of the planning portfolio, preferring a more piecemeal approach while Whiting favoured creating a new ‘garden village’ concept as long as it included road links, schools, shops and open spaces.
Mike Baldock (Swale Independent) won Swale West from Conservative Mike Whiting
Whiting's cause was not helped by Secretary of State for Housing Robert Jenrick giving the go-ahead for the controversial Wises Lane development at Borden exactly a week before the polls.
A Conservative insider admitted: "We were not happy about the timing and have told the Government what we think in no uncertain matter."
Cllr Baldock said: "One of my first questions at County Hall will be to ask why Kent Highways changed its advice about Wises Lane. Perhaps it needs to think more about residents and the democracy behind council policies rather than just seeing it as a good idea on paper."
He admitted it had been a "very odd" election. He said: "I like to engage with people. I like to knock on doors, go to public meetings and stop and talk to people to get a feel of what's going on. But we haven't had any of that this time.
"I won but do people know what I stand for or what sort of councillor I am? The win doesn't feel as satisfying as it would have been had it been a normal election."
In Faversham, the Lib Dems retained their seat, with Antony Hook getting 2,775 votes (45%).
He beat Tory's Andy Culham, who had 1,907 votes, Labour's Andrew Birkin with 1,099 votes and Benjamin Allen Martin (Ind) with 442 votes.
The Sheppey division had two seats up for grabs and proved a clean sweep for the Tories.
KCC Sheppey results announced
Cameron Beart, Conservative, topped the poll on Sheppey
At 29, Cameron Beart is set to be one of the youngest county councillors. He was elected to take over the seat vacated by outgoing Conservative Ken Pugh and topped the poll with 35% of the vote (4,680) while his colleague Andy Booth retained his place on KCC with 26% of the total ballot (3,464). Cllr Booth was not present for the count.
The result gave Cllr Beart, who has been a Swale councillor for six years and a member of Queenborough Town Council for three, a lead of 1,216 votes. He afterwards: "I am absolutely ecstatic. I was not expecting that majority.
"Most of our campaign was uncertain because we didn't know how the elections were going to be called. And when they were, we could not go out because of Covid. Then we had the sad news about the Duke of Edinburgh so we suspended our campaign on probably what would have been our busiest campaign day.
"It has been a very strange election and not one which will be repeated any time soon, hopefully. But we got our message out and Sheppey has spoken"
He predicted his new job would be a "huge challenge." He said: "I've had six years on Swale but I don't think that has quite prepare me for KCC. But I'm looking forward to representing the people of Sheppey."
Swale Independents Elliott Jayes came third with 1,679 votes. Labour veteran Angela Harrison finished fourth with 11% (1,526). She was the most experienced member of the local authority having been a county councillor between 2005 and 2009 and 2013 to 2017.
The turnout was 24%.
In 2017 the Conservatives regained overall control of Kent County Council after Ukip lost every seat it had won in 2013. The Tories ended with a record margin of 67 out of the 81 seats. Labour had an uncomfortable election with their 13 seats more than halved and ousted as the official opposition by the Liberal Democrats.
This year voters headed to the polls in the midst of a pandemic which has triggered three national lockdowns and the deaths of tens of thousands. Many voters opted for a postal vote to play safe.
Those who braved the polling stations had to wear a mask and provide their own pen or pencil. Staff remained cacooned behind Perspex panels.
At the count at Swallows Leisure Centre, Sittingbourne, those doing the counting were kept behind giant Perspex safety screens which gave the appearance of the prison scene in the movie Silence of the Lambs.
Everyone inside had wear a face mask and use hand sanitiser on arrival. Counting took pace on Friday afternoon. The Sheppey result was the last to call.