The tectonic plates of politics are shifting – most dramatically with the departure of Boris Johnson, who left (with a sulk), inciting a fresh round of Tory infighting. The Conservatives are, to put it mildly, in disarray, and progressive parties are poised to tilt at once strong Tory parliamentary seats.
The revolution is already under way in Sussex. In the recent round of local elections, many Conservative voters deserted the party. And the Liberal Democrats (with radical agendas) have emerged as the new voices of previous Tory heartlands.
Chichester turned Lib Dem for the first time in its history. We spoke to three councillors prominent in the campaign.
Kate O’Kelly, who serves as county councillor at Midhurst on the Hampshire border, said:
“We thought it was going to be really close. We thought we’d be the largest party with 18 seats, maybe 19; we didn’t expect to get 25. Things shifted in the last few weeks, so we decided to allocate resources to the Witterings (a formerly safe Tory area) and in the event got two more of our candidates over the line.”
It was no overnight success for the party, which in 2015 had just three councillors on Chichester District Council. Several by-elections went their way in 2021 and “showed that we could win,” said O’Kelly.
“We’d been planning it and working at it for 18 months,” she continued. “Moderate Tories that canvassers met are still rocked by Boris Johnson’s lack of decency and way he behaved – and Liz Truss’s trashing of the economy. And there is a feeling that Rishi hasn’t pulled that back at all.”
Government failures and a weak MP
For Adrian Moss, the new leader of the council, “There was feeling when we went round knocking on doors that the government have failed, nationally and locally. There was a lot of disappointment – with the government but also with the MP. It was felt she had not put the interests of the community first.”
Much outrage has centered on the dumping of raw sewage in Chichester Harbour. which first came to wider public attention in 2021, although it has been an issue in the area for years. Chichester’s Conservative MP Gillian Keegan was regarded as weak on the issue, failing to stand up against government failures to act effectively to curb the practices of water companies. And for former Conservative voters in areas such as the Witterings, the difficulty of getting a GPs appointment was another telling factor.
O’Kelly said: “It wasn’t clear until the last few weeks of the campaign that the tide was turning. People answering the door said, ‘We’ve seen your leaflets – we’re voting for you’.”
In the end, the Lib Dems took control of the council for the first time in a cathedral city and surrounding district where Tory MP Keegan had a majority in 2019 of 21,490. The Tories were left with just five seats; also elected were four members of the Local Alliance and two Greens.
O’Kelly, who was the Lib Dem parliamentary candidate in 2019, had trailed Keegan by 11,000 votes, but boosted the party’s vote by 11.5 per cent from the previous election. Interestingly, she says it was not Boris Johnson that persuaded Conservative voters to fall into line behind their party then, but fear of the Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn.
Can the Lib Dems win Chichester at the next General Election?
The scale of the Lib Dem success in Chichester puts them in pole position to narrow this gap and perhaps even take the seat from the Conservatives. But there are some daunting challenges ahead for the new Lib-Dem council, not least some controversial planning issues.
There is public disquiet over plans by developer Pallant Homes to build 200 homes between Nutbourne and Chidham; it is currently at appeal. And coming up are re-submitted plans for 300 homes at Highgrove Farm at Bosham and numerous contentious applications for developments on the Manhood Peninsula. This area of the District already struggles with inadequate road and public services infrastructure, never mind coastal flood plain risks to the grade A farmland, also being eyed up by developers.
The move by Prime Minister Rishi Sunak to dispense with housing targets is another knotty issue. It contrasts with the goal of housing minister Michael Gove to build more. The only certainty coming out of government is more uncertainty.
Moss says the council now has to wait and see how this pans out. The council’s own Local Plan highlights the need for more homes in Chichester itself. But he wants to avoid what in effect is now ‘open season’ for big developers submitting speculative planning applications for countryside sites.
“We want to attract more young people to live and work in Chichester,” said Moss. “It’s vital for the future of the city. We’re the only town or city in West Sussex with a university. We want some of these students to stay and work and raise families. So as well as affordable homes, we need to attract businesses to locate here.”
The environment is a key concern
Deputy Leader Jonathan Brown, in charge of the council’s environment strategy, told us: “The sewage issue is a very big challenge. It’s not just the coast, there are issues with treatment works affecting rivers inland.”
And sewage has impacted on potential housing developments, because water companies are obliged to connect new homes to the water system. “In the short term we are trying to get better data from Southern Water to better inform planning decisions. We are open to ideas so we’ll also work with them on nature-based solutions if at all possible.
“There has been a trend for water companies to label routine discharges into rivers and the sea as ‘storm discharges’. They have been ramping up the frequency of these so-called ‘storm discharges’ in order to maintain theoretical capacity at treatment works.”
“The Environment Agency,” he added, “is unwilling to act on the ‘gaming’ of a system which would cost a lot of money to fix.”
O’Kelly thinks more can be done on sewage. “The levers are there but the government hasn’t got the appetite to pull them. It is not as impossible a problem to fix as the Tories say it is.”
Proper resources for the “massively underfunded” Environment Agency is one way forward. The Lib Dems nationally are looking at other ways to put financial pressure on the water companies, with Labour picking these ideas up and putting forward a similar approach.
Meanwhile, she told us: “We can’t tell people ‘we have the solution’, but we are in violent agreement with them that it is a very high priority issue.”
O’Kelly is aware that votes in local elections don’t necessarily translate to general election victory, but the Lib Dems’ success in the locals has put down a marker. And tactical voting will be key.
“The overwhelming thing is that it is now very clear that in an area like this it is the Lib Dems who can beat the Conservatives,” said O’Kelly, “and the public understand this. We don’t want to go out of our way to tread on Labour’s toes, but their supporters know that this is our area.”