Local Elections this 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.

Our series now moves to Blaenau Gwent, South-East Wales as our Senior Account Executive Alastair Fisher examines how this former Labour heartland, now Independently held council, will fare later this week..

Blaenau Gwent: the local picture

Current status: Blaenau Gwent County Borough Council IND majority (30 Independent councillors, 12 Labour councillors)

Following the 2017 election the number of councillors representing Blaenau Gwent has been reduced from 42 to 33. There has also been a reduction in electoral wards from 16 to 14. This change in ward and councillor numbers will now see nine two member wards and five three member wards come into existence. There will be 69 candidates vying for just 33 seats from the major parties and independents.

The home of iconic figure Nye Bevan, Blaenau Gwent is a mining valleys area, and on paper should be one of Labour’s safest councils, having elected Labour MPs and a Labour council safely for decades, including former Labour Leader Michael Foot. It was on several occasions Labour’s most reliable parliamentary seat in Wales.

This all changed following Labour MP Peter Law leaving the party after being de-selected in 2005 and contesting the seat as an Independent. He unexpectedly won in a landslide. Following his death in 2006, Independents unexpectedly held the MPs seat as ‘Blaenau Gwent People’s Voice’ in the by-election. In 2008 Independents then succeeded in taking the Council.

Labour took back control of the Council in 2012, only to lose it again by a large majority in 2017 to ex-Labour Independents.

In this election there are 32 Independents contesting the council. This compares to Labour’s 27 candidates and the 9 from Plaid Cymru, the Conservatives and the Greens combined, with no Liberal Democrats or other parties standing. The contest is therefore one between the Independents and Labour with the Independents expected to come out on top yet again.

To add to the interest around the Blaenau Gwent local election, this year they are one of four local authorities in Wales piloting advanced voting for the first time. This will allow voters to cast their vote early on Tuesday 2nd and Wednesday 3rd May regardless of where they live. The purpose of this trial is to make elections more accessible to people and for it be easier for those who wish to vote to do so.

Andrea Jones, the Returning Officer for Blaenau Gwent Council has said that “The learning [from this trail] will be used to inform longer term improvements to the way people vote and help reduce the democratic deficit.” This will also be the first time in Blaenau Gwent local elections, that 16- and 17-year-olds will be eligible to vote, which Labour is hoping to capitalise on. How the lower voting age and early voting trial will impact voter turnout, which in 2017 was just 41 per cent, will be closely watched.

Many countries, such as Australia, already allow their citizens to vote in advance at local, state, and federal elections from any eligible voting location. By opening the voting system and allowing it to grow and reflect the twenty-first century’s busy and diverse lifestyle, elections within Wales and indeed the whole of the United Kingdom will be able to be more inclusive, more accessible, and therefore more democratic.

With the Conservatives, and indeed Boris Johnson himself, under pressure across the entirety of the United Kingdom due to a myriad of scandals over recent months, Labour will be hoping to capitalise on public sentiment and make large gains on Thursday.

The electorate of this former Labour stronghold, now with a rich, proud Independent political history, is unlikely to fall the way Labour hopes and most likely will see the strengthening of the Independents hold on the area. The increasing threat of Independents and minor parties such as the Greens therefore seems likely to play a significant role in this year’s Local Elections.

Whatever the outcome on Thursday, Blaenau Gwent will be closely watched by those within the Labour party and election buffs alike due to the role of Independents, the influence of young 16- and 17-year-old voters and the trial of a new way to vote in Welsh elections.

In the Union Connectivity Review, Independent Chair Sir Peter Hendy concluded that the Government’s policies to build back better and level up require different, strategic cases for transport investment across the country. The review built on the ambitions of the Integrated Rail Plan (IRP), widening its scope from transforming connectivity in England to the rest of the Union.

Hendy’s Review emphasised economic growth, job creation and social cohesion, themes that have since been echoed by both Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Transport Secretary Grant Shapps.

The potential implications of this are far-reaching – covering a wide range of projects, from the pre-application stage all the way through to construction. If implemented, its recommendations will offer plenty of opportunities as well as challenges, with planners and contractors potentially having to navigate very different infrastructure planning systems and political landscapes at the same time.

The Review outlined recommendations to improve connectivity with Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. In the Chair’s words, these provide ‘comprehensive, achievable and clear plans forward to better connect the whole of the United Kingdom’.

For Scotland, this could mean reduced rail journey times and increased capacity on the west coast main line, alongside an assessment of the east coast road and rail corridor.

In Wales, it recommended improving the North Wales coast main line and rail links to the Midlands from Cardiff. It also recommended improvements to the A55, M53 and M56 roads and the South Wales Corridor. As anticipated in our latest edition of infrastructure insights, it also recommends improving port capacity at Holyhead, identifying the North Wales Coast Line as a key route for communities and businesses.

However, Welsh MPs are asking why the Government has decided Wales is not entitled to a share of HS2 spending (as per the IRP), with Liz Saville Roberts saying it ‘reveals the reality of this union of inequality’. Such concerns highlight the importance of clearly communicating the purpose of reports and the relationships between them.

Over the Irish Sea, this could mean upgrading the key A75 link to improve freight and passenger connectivity (Northern Ireland).

The Report also recommended the following:

  • Design and implement UKNET, a strategic transport network for the UK. UKNET will assess and map out key points across the UK that are essential to stronger, more direct transport connections. With additional funding and regular review, this can better serve the UK’s social and economic needs.
  • Plan improvements using multimodal corridors to support levelling up and net zero.
  • Support the development of sustainable aviation fuel plants in areas that are particularly reliant on aviation for domestic connectivity.

The UK Government will now carefully consider these recommendations in detail and work to identify the solutions that work best for the people of the UK – although the Prime Minister has already committed to setting up UKNET: “If we want to truly level up the country then it’s vital that we improve connectivity between all corners of the UK, making it easier for more people to get to more places more quickly.

“Sir Peter Hendy’s review is an inspiring vision for the future of transport, which we will now consider carefully. Determined to get to work right away, we will set up a strategic UK-wide transport network that can better serve the whole country with stronger sea, rail and road links – not only bringing us closer together but boosting jobs, prosperity and opportunity,” he said. The Review was also praised by Transport Secretary Grant Shapps.

The Review is a positive step towards a better-connected, more economically buoyant United Kingdom. But, its success will depend on the delivery of relevant, benefits-focused narratives and engagement tailored to local people. Associate Director Pippa Gibbs Joubert tells us more about successful engagement for infrastructure projects.