Issues facing Basildon Council ahead of election

After a change in administration last year, voters in Basildon will be once again heading to the polls in just over one month’s time.

The Conservative administration at Basildon Borough Council will be looking to strengthen its control, while Labour and independents who once ran the council in an alliance will be hoping to make up for losses made last year.

Basildon elects its councillors in thirds, with this year’s seats having last been contested in 2018. Elections will not take place in St Martins and Vange wards this year, according to the council website.

Although candidates have yet to be formally announced, the seats that will be contested are currently held by several notable figures in the council, among them council leader Andrew Baggott (Con, Burstead), Labour group and opposition leader Jack Ferguson (Pitsea North-West) and Independent group leader Kerry Smith (Nethermayne).

Local elections are often affected by national issues, with the cost of living squeeze, the response to the war in Ukraine and the recovery from the Coronavirus pandemic dominating UK headlines.

But local issues, closer to the electorate deciding who stays and who goes, also have a part to play.

Pulling the local plan

Earlier this month, the council voted to withdraw its local plan, a blueprint for more than 20,000 new homes in the borough.

The Conservatives say the decision will protect the green belt from development, and the town centre from high-rise towers, included in the plan.

They want to create a new plan which protects the green belt while also meeting the government’s housing targets.

But Labour and other opposition councillors say pulling the plan could let developers push through applications on appeal, weakening the council’s, and therefore the public’s, say.

They also say resources will be wasted starting a new plan from scratch and that it has not been costed.

Scores of residents turned up to watch the vote in February, but the council had to vote again to re-confirm its decision in early March after an intervention from officers, who said they had not fully considered the implications of pulling the plan.

Cllr Baggott also received a letter from the government, warning it could intervene if a new plan is not made quickly enough.

Councils are legally required to have a local plan, which gives them powers to reject planning applications and protects them from speculative developments and appeals.

However, many residents are unhappy with how many homes were allocated for rural and green belt areas in places like Billericay.

Additionally, several high rise developments in the town centre have gone to appeal, with one already having been granted permission despite the council’s earlier refusal.

The proposals for the Market Square development was part of a town centre masterplan developed under the previous administration.

Cllr Baggott said in August 2021 fighting the appeal was expected to cost the council £2million.

Drugs and antisocial behaviour

The administration wants to crack down on local drug dealing and antisocial behaviour, particularly in the town centre.

In its recent budget, Basildon Council promised to fund a team of community safety wardens aimed at disrupting antisocial activity. 

But the £400,000 plan has caused the Conservatives to go back on an election pledge from last year to cut council tax for Basildon residents.

Tax will instead be frozen at £278.91 for a Band D property.

Cllr Baggott said at the budget meeting last month that this was in response to concerns raised by residents about the levels of antisocial behaviour and crime in the borough.

However, Labour leader Cllr Ferguson said the Conservatives had broken a promise to the electorate, and that the council needs to focus more early intervention to tackle drug dealing, in addition to merely being “tough on crime”.

The council has also recently voted through a public space protection order, which in addition to banning drinking alcohol in public will also ban cars from several parks in an attempt to crack down on the borough’s boy racers.

Multiple offenders could be fined up to £1,000.

Cabinet or Committee system

Political groups disagree over exactly how the council should be run.

The Conservative group wants to switch back to a cabinet system, which will give executive powers to a small number of administration members, only four years after a committee system was adopted by the previous administration.

Although this is more of a procedural issue, it will affect how much say opposition members get over key decisions.

Under the current committee system, councillors of all parties sit on various committees and get to vote on issues several different times.

The Conservatives argue introducing a cabinet will streamline decision making, with committee-decisions often taking months or even years as they go between various bodies and consultations.

But Labour says it will stop cross party councillors from working together and gives too much control to whoever is in administration.

If the Conservative retain control of the council, they plan to adopt the new system on May 26, the earliest date possible without holding a referendum. This decision has already been voted on by the full council.

The local elections will take place on Thursday May 5 2022.

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Charlie Ridler

Local Democracy Reporter