Knowsley’s local elections could bring change to the borough as opposition parties attempt to make more inroads into one of Labour’s longest-standing strongholds.
The vote on May 6 will see 17 seats up for grabs and while Labour is almost certain to retain its control of the council, there are a number of issues that could see the opposition make gains.
Local elections are often difficult to predict, with the national context often playing as much of a role as local problems and the ruling Labour group will certainly point to its pandemic response as a key reason to vote for its candidates.
But while being out of power means there is not much for opposition groups to contest in that regard, there are three other areas that involve major differences between the parties and could be particularly important in marginal areas like Halewood and Prescot.
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The large number of housing developments approved in Knowsley recently is probably going to be the key issue at this election, particularly in the more marginal wards in the centre and south of the borough.
All three of the council’s existing opposition groups have made a big deal of their objections to significant housing developments including the 1,300-home East of Halewood development, the 1,600-home Halsnead Garden Village and the smaller development at Whitakers Garden Centre in Prescot.
These developments all involve building on former green belt land, have few if any affordable homes and have attracted objections based on the additional demand they will place on local infrastructure and services.
On the other hand, Labour has sought to emphasise the benefits of the developments not just in solving the housing crisis but also in bringing much-needed investment into the borough.
In Whiston and Cronton, another seat threatened by the Greens, Labour has trumpeted not just the housing and jobs being created by the Halsnead Garden Village, but also the potential for millions of pounds in contributions from developers for things like schools and health facilities.
The party expects around £14m in developer contributions once the whole project is completed, providing money for 475 new primary school places and improvements to leisure facilities like Whiston Playing Fields.
In Halewood, the party is pointing to similar contributions of around £13m from the new housing developments.
Whether or not voters decide this is a reasonable price for the loss of green space will be key to determining the outcomes in at least five wards in Halewood, Prescot, Whiston and Cronton.
Despite the pandemic, Knowsley’s regeneration work has continued apace with both the new supermarket in Kirkby and the Shakespeare North Playhouse in Prescot nearing completion.
Given the council’s leading role in the regeneration of these two towns, Labour will be keen to take credit for the improvements, particularly in Prescot where the party faces losing yet another seat to the Greens.
The question will be whether voters have started to feel the difference caused by the developments. Prescot certainly looks different with the range of new businesses opening in the past few years, but whether this is enough to outweigh voters’ other concerns is not clear.
In Kirkby, things are a bit different. The work on the new shopping development is still ongoing, so won’t have made much of a difference to residents’ lives just yet.
However, the promise of significant change in the very near future and the clear signs of progress after so many years of private sector inaction could well be enough to shore up Labour votes in its stronghold.
In Huyton, the council’s investment in the town is likely to have less of an impact given most of its dramatic plans are still in their very early stages and the only really visible difference is changes to the shop fronts on Derby Road.
There is also a chance that the bitter arguments over Aldi’s plans to build a new store on the former Huyton Cricket Club could damage Labour if voters associate the ruling group too much with those plans.
Meanwhile, in Halewood, redevelopment in other parts of the borough could be a double-edged sword for Labour given the lack of similar ambitious plans for the town.
Social media has previously been awash with comments suggesting Halewood is the “forgotten town” of Knowsley – something the Halewood Independents have sought to capitalise on.
Tax and spend
Like most other local authorities, Knowsley Council hiked Council Tax again this year in the face of continuing government cuts.
While the council had little option but to raise taxes, these decisions are never popular and could contribute to voters looking to other parties like the Lib Dems and the Greens who proposed lower tax rises or, in the Lib Dem case, a tax freeze.
However, Labour is seeking to make a virtue of its tax policy, pointing out that the opposition’s proposals would have meant missing out on money for adult social care and having to make bigger cuts in future years.
The party can also point to the £2.5m hardship fund it has established to help people struggling after the pandemic and its £6.4m “recovery fund”.
Details of how the recovery fund will be spent are yet to be announced, but neither of these significant commitments would have been possible without the tax hike and Labour will hope this along with its message about central government austerity will neutralise the tax issue.