• The big debate: Will Sidmouth be a thorn in the Tories’ side?

    22nd April 2013 | News | Claire
  • East Devon could be set for a battle royal in the upcoming council elections, as the Liberal Democrats, UKIP, the Green Party and a handful of dogged independents look to challenge years of Tory domination.

    Phil Goodwin visits to see whether anger over a number of recent controversies has put voters in the mood to give the Conservative party a bloody nose in its own back yard…

    The tranquil, genteel and well-heeled enclave of East Devon has lost some of its reputation as a bastion of conservatism and has actually been quite riotous of late.

    Allegations of corruption and widespread anger over too much development in the countryside have prompted thousands of protesters to take the big debate to the streets, suggesting a mood of quiet revolt in the rural idyll.

    Such is the dissent in some quarters that some loyal Tories are said to have ripped up party membership cards in disgust after reading tales of alleged council corruption and incompetence over the breakfast table.

    Extreme critics have branded the district a “one-party state” – a Devonian “banana” republic riven by simmering dissent and rife with dodgy planning decisions.

    Others will say the local politicians are doing a good job, that a desperate need for homes and growth is being thwarted by a vociferous and well-orchestrated not-in-my-back-yard (Nimby) lobby which wants to preserve the area in aspic.

    As I cycled into Regency Sidmouth, nerve centre of the regime and headquarters of the district council, there was little evidence of a failed state teetering on the edge of lawlessness.

    Just the gentle clicking of croquet balls on a near-perfect stretch of lawn beside an equally well-manicured cricket square in front of a bubbling, sunlit sea.

    But, after convincing an elderly couple to down mallets from their game for a quick chat, it became clear that indeed, all was not well.

    “I think there is a strong likelihood that the votes of people will be influenced by the ineptitude and seeming carelessness of the council towards people,” the man told me, with little prompting, adding that he didn’t wish to give his name.

    “There is a mood of resignation – whatever we say it will be disregarded. They don’t take on the voters’ wishes – they are neither capable nor competent.”

    By “they”, he is referring to East Devon District Council, an overwhelmingly Conservative authority, as is the larger county body.

    Of the 11 county council wards that make up the district, eight are Tory, with just two Liberal Democrat seats and one held by a popular independent for 20 years.

    But since the Lib Dems were kicked out of County Hall four years ago, and the map was coloured blue in the district elections of 2011, some of the sheen has come off the incumbents, locally at least.

    A local plan which earmarked a beauty spot for development as an industrial estate in Sidford along with plans for 180 new homes in Feniton and Ottery St Mary boiled over with a 4,000-strong march of placard-waving residents through the seaside town. Claims of improper links with businessmen and developers then led to the creation of a task force to investigate allegations of undue influence.

    This was followed by the at-times farcical and ultimately humiliating failure by the district authority to win planning consent from its own committee for a controversial sell-off of the leafy council headquarters at the Knowle.

    But perhaps most damaging of all was the Telegraph sting operation on Graham Brown, former head of the under-business forum, who was caught on film boasting of his ability to secure planning “at the right price”.

    The long-standing Tory member was unceremoniously dumped by his party, resigned his seat and was referred to the police by his own colleagues.

    Tony Green, a member of Save our Sidmouth (SOS), which organised the march, says there is now a “huge amount of renewed interest in politics”. Mr Green, who is also part of the East Devon Alliance and the author of a dossier alleging undue influence on planning decisions by Mr Brown’s East Devon Business Forum, says public perception is of a “cabal” at the heart of the local council, taking decisions without consulting the public or grass- roots members.

    “I have spoken to Conservative councillors who say people have come up to them tearing up their membership cards because they are so ashamed at the way things are being done,” he added.

    “The mood has been quite riotous and there is a growing dissatisfaction with the domination of one party, which I suspect is the motive behind some of the independents.

    “Turnout is always higher here because of the elderly population – I don’t know if we will see fundamental change on May 2, but in the district elections of 2015 there is much more likely to be a political earthquake.”

    The biggest election-night shock of two years ago was when then-leader Sara Randall Johnson was unseated in Ottery St Mary by independent councillor Claire Wright, a constant thorn in the side of the establishment since her victory.

    Perhaps scenting blood, the Greens, the UK Independence Party, Labour and the Lib Dems are all hunting down Miss Randall Johnson, who faces a tough battle to retain her county seat in Honiton St Michael’s, where she won with a slender 235 majority, but crucially without the presence of UKIP and the Green Party.

    Current leader Paul Diviani is also up against an independent, a Green, a Lib Dem and, arguably the dark horses in this year’s poll, a resurgent UKIP, buoyed by a barnstorming recent visit to the county by the popular leader Nigel Farage.

    Many of the leading Tories are sitting on sizeable majorities, but the introduction of UKIP could be dramatic.

    Budleigh and Sidmouth’s Tories look shock-proof, with majorities of more than 1,500 and 2,000.

    Incumbents in Axminster, Honiton St Paul’s and Seaton Coastal also enjoy respectable cushions of 350, 887 and 135, and importantly those results saw off a UKIP challenge last time around.

    Nerves will be more frayed where UKIP have entered the fray, in Broadclyst and Whimple, Exmouth Halsdon and Woodbury and Honiton St Michael’s, where the respective leads were 166, 482 and 235. That is because in the three wards where UKIP stood last time, they polled an average 729 votes.

    If these voters defect from the Tories, each of the three seats would pass to the Lib Dems, a swing big enough to force a “hung” council at district level, if all other parties polled the same.

    John Sheaves, a farmer in Ottery St Mary and chief executive of regional food body Taste of the West, has lived in the area his entire life.

    He admits the recent “antics” have “knocked confidence in the ability of the council to run things in a coherent way”, though he wonders if this will be reflected in the ballot box.

    “The business community are desperate for jobs and economic growth and think the view of the anti-development brigade is unrealistic,” he added. “There is no two ways, this is a Tory heartland – but it does tend to be polarised between this and Nimbyism.

    “Many of the communities here are not chocolate box villages with a thatched house and a pub, they are made up of new developments – you cannot preserve them in aspic, they have to be sustainable.

    “What is really unbelievable is that we had the biggest debate of all to be had about the new town at Cranbrook and nobody raised an eyebrow.”

    There are some 51 candidates for the 11 county council seats, all of which are to be contested by the Conservatives and the Labour Party.

    UKIP and the Liberal Democrat parties both have candidates for ten out of the 11 constituencies and there are three independents.

    Perhaps seeking to exploit renewed interest in the environment, the Green Party is to field six candidates this time, as opposed to none in 2009.

    But despite this jockeying for position and power, a stroll around the streets of Sidmouth reveals a less-than-engaged population, who mostly registered incomprehension, apathy, disinterest, or plain resignation.

    In Haymans butchers, in Church Street, staff said none of their customers had even mentioned the county elections. One man in the shop, who didn’t give his name but said he was a retired driver, said he would be voting UKIP, in the hope it gave them a “bounce” ahead of the general election.

    “I think a lot people will be doing the same as a protest,” he added. “David Cameron is spineless and doesn’t come across at all. I want the door shut on immigration and decent pensions for forgotten pensioners.”

    Elaine O’Grady, who runs The Hair Crew hairdressers in Sidmouth, admitted she was usually a Conservative voter but said she was also considering UKIP.
    “I am undecided – I think a lot of people are confused about who to vote for these days,” she added.

    Looking after her grocer’s stall in the indoor market, Judith Taylor, from Newton Poppleford, said she would probably not be voting because “nothing ever changes”.
    “I don’t need to vote because it will be Tory for ever more here,” she added.

    “It was really quiet here on Wednesday because everyone was at home watching Lady Thatcher’s funeral.

    “It will be interesting to see what the voters do, but people are very despondent – everybody has to work much harder and the people in the council don’t seem to understand.”