Local Elections on Thursday 5 May 2022 will take place amidst a cost of living and energy security crisis, the war in Ukraine and the lingering impact of Covid-19.

We are following six battles across the UK, each of which will have significant implications for development and infrastructure plans locally and nationally.

The battlegrounds we are focusing on have been selected for a widespread reflection of policy and geography complexities influencing voters.

These elections provide an excellent platform to examine the public’s confidence in ‘levelling up’ and other major government policies.

We begin our series in Newcastle-under-Lyme, Staffordshire as our Senior Account Manager Laura Cunliffe-Hall examines the cracks beneath the current Conservative stronghold in the area.

Newcastle-under-Lyme: the local picture

Current status: Newcastle-under-Lyme Borough Council CON majority (24 Conservative councillors, 18 Labour councillors, 2 Liberal Democrat councillors)

Local government borough, town and parish council elections will be taking place in Newcastle-under-Lyme on Thursday 5 May 2022. These elections will allow electors in Newcastle-under-Lyme to choose who they want to represent their community as a councillor.

Newcastle-under-Lyme has been an intriguing microcosm of the national political picture.

An ex-industrial area with a strong coal mining heritage, the town has been the recipient of dedicated investment funding from government to revitalise the local community and economy. However, the town centre has suffered from high vacancy rates even before the heavy impact of Covid-19 and latest statistics from the Office of National Statistics (ONS) named the area of Chesterton and Knutton, just north of Newcastle, as the poorest area of Staffordshire, not including Stoke on Trent.

For context, Knutton (one of Labour’s safest wards in the Borough back in 2018) was dramatically swung by eight votes in November 2021 as Conservative candidate Derrick Huckfield edged out Labour’s Stephanie Talbot to take up a seat on Newcastle-under-Lyme Borough Council. However, turnout (the amount of voters participating in the election) was only 18% – indicative of the challenge to engage voters and mobilise them to go out and vote in local elections.

Four independent councillors on Newcastle-under-Lyme Borough Council also joined the Conservatives in November 2021 – giving the Tories an overall majority on the authority for the first time in decades (with the Council having been under no overall control since 2015).

Regeneration and road investment

Regeneration has been a key focus for the Conservative councillors, despite opposition critiques that they focused on ‘every cut, every closure and every tax rise’. In line with the national ‘levelling up’ agenda, the Conservative-led council has positioned themselves as a strong proponent of infrastructure and high street investment, alongside local Conservative MP Aaron Bell.

Nearly 2,700 homes could be built in the borough over the next five years and the Council is currently developing its Local Plan, which will guide all development up to 2040.

To facilitate this growth, road improvements plans as part of a £1.8 million scheme will provide a cycle link from Newcastle-under-Lyme town centre into Stoke-on-Trent and resurface town pavements, following on from a public consultation.

However, many local residents are more focused upon a solution to the situation at Walley’s Quarry Landfill site, with gas odours from the site affecting residents for over a year, which the Leader of the Council has escalated to the Environment Agency. The recorded levels of Hydrogen Sulphide (H2S) emitted from the site are above the World Health Organisation’s permitted levels at various times during most weeks.

Local people expect their politicians to be able to not only drive regeneration and provide interim solutions, but solve existing problems in the longer-term.

The local Labour Party councillors in Newcastle are focusing on energy security and rising energy bills, as well as unreliable and expensive public transport across North Staffordshire. The incumbent Conservative council, led by Council Leader Simon Tagg alongside Boris-Johnson critic MP Aaron Bell are focusing messages on investment in areas like Ryecroft, business and job creation. In late November 2021, the latter would have likely been more popular with voters.

However, in the present moment, energy security is at the forefront of both the news and voters’ concerns, therefore as we count down to 5 May every conversation on the doorstep with voters will count.

Blue or red: All eyes on Newcastle-under-Lyme

In traditional strongholds like Newcastle-under-Lyme, the Conservatives are facing major losses alongside areas such as Somerset, Wokingham, Crawley, Gosport, St Albans, Nuneaton, Pendal and Castlepoint.

The Conservatives are also staring at major losses in other strong areas, including a potential wipeout in London where they could lose control of Wandsworth, Barnet, Harrow and Sutton councils. We will examine the situation in Wandsworth in the next blog in our series.

Meanwhile the new Red Wall seats so dearly won from Labour are also increasingly vulnerable with council seats being defended in Dudley, Sandwell, Sunderland, Sheffield, Solihull and Bury due to strong Labour operations on the ground.

Keir Starmer, the Leader of the Labour Party, visited Newcastle-under-Lyme recently this month to discuss the impact of rising energy and fuel costs on the wider energy industry at KMF Precision Sheet Metal, one of the largest sheet metal engineering and metal fabrication companies in the UK. By making the visit to Newcastle a month in advance of local elections, Starmer indicated the strategic importance of the town for the Labour Party, as well as outlining what Labour could offer to voters locally: practical answers to the problems everyday voters struggle with including the cost of living crisis.

However, these are of course local elections, and many voters will be casting a vote that reflects local, not national political issues.

Whilst the Government has promised vast sums of investment in infrastructure in areas like Newcastle-under-Lyme, voters will be judging parties on their ability to deliver new investment, employment and placemaking to their region.

For parties to succeed, they must hone in their core messaging on how they will assist in the delivery of vital infrastructure at pace and take on the challenges of energy security affecting people’s bills, whilst also ensuring the views of local people are at the heart of all future decision making.

Whether the red or blue bunting will be put out in Newcastle-under-Lyme after the count on May 5 will be contingent on the public’s confidence in Labour and the Conservatives’, both locally and nationally, to deliver.

Copper Consultancy will be providing ongoing coverage of the May 2022 Local Elections. For more information, please contact Laura.Cunliffe-Hall@copperconsultancy.com

The government’s recent adoption of a new target to reduce emissions by 78 per cent by 2035 put renewed focus on sectors such as international aviation and shipping which previously sat outside the UK’s Carbon Budget. But the adoption of recommendations from the Climate Change Committee also has major implications for an industry much closer to home. James Gore considers the decarbonisation challenge faced by the housing sector. 

The UK has some of the most energy inefficient housing in Europe, a situation exacerbated by increased working from home during the pandemic. Many column inches have been devoted to the eye-watering cost of retrofitting existing housing stock, with the bill for the social housing sector alone estimated at more than £100bn. But, as the Climate Change Committee has pointed out, work is also needed to close the gap between design and actual performance of new homes when it comes to energy efficiency. 

Improving the performance of new and existing homes requires a workforce skilled in low-carbon heating and ventilation and closing this low-carbon skills gap could provide opportunities for young people who have been hit hardest by the economic impact of Covid-19.  But inspiring a generation to help make this happen requires a coordinated approach to communications from government and industry. 

At the same time, the sector must do more to counter negativity around the potential cost to homeowners and landlords of meeting the decarbonisation challenge.  Increasingly, organisations in the social housing sector are working together to procure services and develop the skills required to meet the decarbonisation challenge, and there is a strong case for this joined-up approach extending to the sector’s communications on this issue. 

Copper’s research into public attitudes to net zero emissions in the UK suggests the public are willing to invest in new technologies if this is accompanied by some form of incentive from government. But negative media coverage about the effectiveness of replacement heating systems risks reducing people’s appetite for making the required changes.  Without clearer articulation of the benefits for both individuals and society as a whole, the housing sector faces an uphill battle to convince the public the price is worth paying. 

In the run up to COP26, the housing sector will have opportunities to shine a light on these challenges and showcase steps it is taking towards a low-carbon future.  It is important that the sector speaks with one voice on this critical issue, making clear its ‘asks’ from government and communicating a positive message to the public about the opportunities that come from decarbonisation. By cutting through noise on this issue to communicate a clear and compelling message, the housing sector can emerge as a leader in the UK’s efforts to meet its net zero target. 

Find Copper Consultancy’s ‘Attitudes to Net Zero’ research here. For more information on how to address communications challenges around decarbonisation contact James.Gore@copperconsultancy.com