Is democracy dead in South Northants?

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MORE than a third of the district council seats in south Northants will go uncontested at next month’s local elections.

After last week’s list of nominations for election to South Northants Council (SNC) was published it emerged that 38 per cent, or 16 out of the 42 seats, will not go to the polls due to a shortage of candidates.

Only one ward in the combination of Brackley and Towcester Town Council will be contested on May 5 and out of the 72 parish council only two will go to the ballot box.

One candidate for Towcester Town Council, Chris Lofts, said he feared the lack of nominations could lead to less consultation with residents, while Brackley’s deputy mayor Theo Hayward told the Advertiser he was worried the apathy could spread to the poll booths.

And SNC chief executive Jean Morgan admitted she found the number of nominations ‘disappointing.’

But Brackley Town Council and SNC member Caryl Billingham insisted the high number of uncontested seats was simply the result of the way the wards broke down, saying other areas had plenty of candidates.

Part of the problem is blamed on the Conservative dominance of the area and of the 68 candidates fighting to become members of SNC, 54 per cent are affiliated to the Tory Party.

In stark contrast Labour is fielding just four candidates.

Some commentators say the district is such a strong Conservative area that it is not surprising other parties decide not to spend resources fighting unwinnable seats. And Mr Lofts, who is standing for a district council seat for the Liberal Democrats, fears the lack of candidates could lead to complacency among those who know they do not need to fight for their seat.

He said his party would be giving voters a choice as it is fielding more candidates than ever before, but added: “It is disappointing, though, that not every elector will have a choice. Unopposed appointments tend to discourage candidates to talk to people to really find out what their concerns and aspirations are for their communities. Experience shows that competition encourages better communications with local voters.

“It is noticeable that where important local issues arise, such as HS2 and the SNC office move, residents find ways to express their opinions but having so many existing uncontested councillors has perhaps meant their voices have not been listened to.”

David Aaronson, one of the two SNC representatives in Deanshanger who will not be fighting to retain their seats and currently the council’s only Labour Party member, said he hoped the job he was doing was enough to satisfy anyone thinking about standing against him, but added: “I would be quite happy if there was some competition but that’s not happened.

“And obviously we will both continue to represent the community and district as a whole. But if there is no election you can not take voters for granted, it makes it even more important you are there for them.”

Brackley’s deputy mayor Theo Hayward said: “What does it say about current attitudes to the power of the people and proposed localism being an effective move forward? I wonder if the apathy or whatever is at the root of it all will extend to the polling booths on May 5?”

David Brookhouse was chairman of SNC between 1982 and 1983. He said the number of uncontested seats in this election was in line with those held over the last 20 years, but added that in the last 12 increased bureaucracy had put many off standing.

Mr Brookhouse added: “There are many people who seem to think the council can do an awful lot, but when they get there, there are government rules and regulations. A lot of people find it frustrating and I think this is showing itself in the fact there are so many uncontested seats.”

He said work to reduce red tape by Communities Secretary Eric Pickles could turn the clock back to a time when local councillors had fewer constraints and added: “When I was a district councillor I certainly had a lot more influence in what was happening.”

Mr Brookhouse said during his time, despite the historic Conservative domination of south Northants, councillors made an effort to avoid party politics and focused on good ideas.

SNC chief executive and returning officer Mrs Morgan said the council’s administration was doing as much as it could to promote democracy.

She said the council had made access to nominations packs easier, kept the local press informed on deadlines, and held information sessions for potential candidates.

She added: “As returning officer, I have a duty to promote candidacy, sign-up to the electoral roll, and to encourage turn-out on election day. In this context, it is disappointing that there are any unopposed seats in the district.”

Ms Billingham said the number of contested seats was not unusual but declined to comment on the reason. However she said the uncontested seats on Brackley Town Council was not a result of apathy to local affairs, but rather the way candidates were spread around the town.

She said: “We do in fact have 19 nominations for 15 seats. It’s just the way the wards break down that mean eight councillors are returned unopposed, two places will have to be filled by co-option and 11 people will stand for election to five places in Brackley East.

“In fact, Brackley East is the only town/parish council election in the whole district.”

Danny Moody, chief executive of the Northants County Association of Local Councils said he was surprised to learn the decline in the number of contested parish seats.

Mr Moody, who is standing for an uncontested parish seat himself, said: “It is worse than normal but it is too early to determine why.

“The actual numbers don’t tell you what’s happened, but if you compare 2011 and 2007, the number of contested election at parish level has gone down, and that is a national trend.

“After asking counterparts in other counties, all of the responses so far are that there are fewer contested elections than before.”

Mr Moody said in 2007 one in five parish councils in Northants held contested elections, but this year that fell to one in 10.