Councillors plead for decision over local elections

Thursday 14th January 2021 12:00 am
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Councillors have urged central government to urgently decide whether or not the planned local elections for May 6 will go ahead.

Voters are due to go to the polls in the county to elect new representatives for the next four years on Devon County Council, as well as the delayed Police and Crime Commissioner elections, plus delayed Exeter City Council elections and several by-elections.

But questions have been raised as to if and how the elections can proceed as normal as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic and the national lockdown restrictions.

Cabinet Office minister Chloe Smith said the position would be kept ‘under review’ and that there should be a ‘high bar’ for any delay.

An urgent question around elections was asked at Devon County Council’s cabinet meeting on Wednesday, with senior officials saying that are having to continue to plan as if the elections will go ahead as planned, but the delay in the final decision is unhelpful.

Cllr John Hart, leader of the council, said that his crystal ball was no better than anyone else’s, but as of last week, the cabinet office had sent an email to MPs saying they will be on May 6. He added: “I haven’t got a clue but we have to plan for the county elections, and I think we will get some clarity closer to the date, but we need urgent answers.”

Cllr Rob Hannaford, leader of the Labour group, said it was ‘more and more challenging’ to see how elections could run safely on May 6, while Cllr Alan Connett, leader of the Liberal Democrat group said: “If the government are minded to delay, then sooner the better to make the announcement.”

He added: “They have to make the decision based on the best information. It is not just about elections for May, but delayed elections from last year, and it creates a log jam in the system, and then creates an enormous set of elections when they happen if delayed again.

“It is not an easy one to wrestle with as elections delayed is democracy denied, but whatever decision, make the decision as soon as possible.”

Cllr Frank Biederman, leader of the Independent Group, said that an early decision is needed. He added: “The public deserve the opportunity to decide and if they decide to go ahead, then go ahead, but the worst scenario is spent a lot of time planning and they pull it at the end.”

Dr Phil Norrey, the council’s chief executive, said that they were making all the points raised to Government.

He said: “The delay is really unhelpful and we do need clarity, and we need proper assurances that if they do go ahead, we need support for the returning officers and costs that will fall on authorities.”

Jan Shadbolt, the county solicitor, added that it wasn’t just the cost of preparing for the elections that was a worry, there were logistics around finding polling stations if schools cannot be used, as well as the cost of PPE and screens to protect voters, so would be a huge cost if they happened in May.

Mrs Smith, speaking in the House of Commons on Wednesday, said “Safe and secure elections are the cornerstone of any democracy and parliament’s decision, as set out in primary legislation, is that these polls should go ahead in May.

“Any change would require very careful consideration, including by this House, and need to be based on robust evidence and there should be a high bar for any delay.

“We would actively encourage anybody who is shielding or who would prefer not to attend the polling station to apply for an absent vote instead of going in person.

“We will be bringing forward additional measures to support absent voting, including extending the ability to appoint a proxy, so that anybody who might be affected by COVID-19 in the days before the poll is still able to make their voice heard.”

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