Parties fire the starting gun for crunch local elections

The team from Corker Outdoor, Award sponsor Jason Varney (Thomson, Snell & Passmore) & Eamonn Holmes
BATTLEGROUND: Tunbridge Wells Town Hall

The six-week pre-election period, also known as the ‘purdah’, prevents local government from making certain announcements about initiatives that could be seen to be advantageous to any candidates or parties in the forthcoming election.

It also sees the local parties begin canvassing in earnest, for what is expected to be among the closest contests held in the Borough for two decades.

During the last local elections in May 2021, Tunbridge Wells Borough Council fell to No Overall Control for the first time in 20 years.

The Conservatives have been running the authority as a minority party ever since and have been further weakened by a by-election defeat and a couple of resignations.

This is also the penultimate local election before the voting system changes in May 2024, which will see a reduction of councillors from 48 to 39 as well as changes to the ward boundaries.

Councillors will all be voted for every four years from 2024, rather than a third of the chamber every year for three years out of four.



In the current 48-seat chamber, the Tory party has 21 councillors, while the opposition parties can muster 26 between them – 12 Lib Dems, 6 Alliance, 5 Labour and 3 independents.

The 16 seats up for election on May 5 include ten occupied by Conservative councillors, two by Lib Dems, two by the Alliance, one by Labour, and one that is vacant.

In order to bring down Tom Dawlings as Leader and secure another administration, the opposition parties will need to win another six seats between them in order to hold a vote of no-confidence in the current leadership.

If this happens, a coalition of the opposition parties would have to be formed to run the Council.

The Liberal Democrats’ Ben Chapelard, who represents St James’ ward, would be favourite for the top job if his party remains the largest of the opposition groups.

But Labour leader Hugo Pound has previously insisted any opposition pact has to be ‘a coalition of equals’, although his party currently has fewer seats than both the Liberal Democrats and the Alliance.

Cllr James Rands

James Rands, a former Lib Dem councillor who left the party earlier this year and is now an independent, says if the Tories do fall after May 5, any restructuring of the Council’s cabinet had to be ‘fair’ and based on the current strengths of the opposition parties.

He told the Times: “If it becomes unrealistic for the Conservatives to stay in power, what everyone [the opposition] has to understand is that any coalition or agreement has to be fair and reflect the number of seats the parties have.

“The idea of a coalition of equals is not fair or realistic. The Liberal Democrats are likely to be the largest party so that will have to be taken into account.”

All opposition parties have previously ruled out working alongside a Conservative administration, but this could result in a stalemate with the Tories keeping hold of the Council as a minority but unable to pass policy.

The Conservatives need at least five of the seats they are contesting to keep control of the Council, but they would need to win all ten they currently hold, plus a further four if they are to regain the majority they lost in 2021.

The only other group that can possibly form a majority after May 5 will be the Lib Dems, but they would have to hold on to the two seats the party is contesting as well as 13 of the other 14 that are up for election.

The candidates running for election in May will be announced after April 5.



The Parties

The Times approached all the main parties and asked what key policies they will be focusing on during the run-up to the May 5 election. Here is what they had to say…


Liberal Democrats

These elections are all about bringing in a new administration.

After more than 20 years, the Conservatives, who are already in a minority, are likely to lose control of the council. The Liberal Democrats are very aware of the need to fix the mistakes made by previous Conservative administrations and address the poor state of council finances.

We will focus on the unglamorous but necessary tasks of running the local services well – waste collection & recycling, parks & community facilities, planning and the maintenance of neglected council-owned facilities. It also needs to rightsize its operations to deliver these services efficiently and effectively for residents.

Making genuine, lasting change needs people from all parties to work together. We pledge to listen, consult and collaborate to put residents first.


Green Party

Tunbridge Wells Greens have been boosted by our highest number of votes ever in the 2021 elections and will continue to campaign with our focus on Adrian Thorne in Broadwater who has been working all year round in the ward.

Greens will be sticking with their principles and opposing the destruction of the local green belt. We will continue to support environmentally friendly housing on recycled brown field sites.

All year we have been an active, campaigning party in the local community and we are committed to offering residents new councillors that actually listen – not more of the same. Voters now have the chance to give their final verdict on this stale, wasteful and failed Conservative Council.

Under new leadership, councillors will need to work more collaboratively for residents and make Tunbridge Wells a place where everyone can prosper and thrive.



The main issues we will be focusing on are supporting businesses and investing in Tunbridge Wells to bring footfall into the town, such as the co-working arrangements in the town hall and the opening of Amelia Scott.

Climate emergency and the continuing progress of the Council’s Net Zero target by encouraging lower carbon emissions throughout the borough is also our focus.

The local plan is also a priority and delivering needed housing and protections for the countryside. As is active and cleaner travel such as more electric vehicles, including buses, as well as electric vehicle charging points.

Continuing to build on our relationships with government, including Kent County Council, the Town Forum, and the parish and town councils, helping refugees as well as improving council services with sound finances post Covid are all in our focus.



Voters now have the chance to give their final verdict on this stale, wasteful and failed Conservative Council.

Under new leadership, councillors will need to work more collaboratively for residents and make Tunbridge Wells a place where everyone can prosper and thrive.

The five Tunbridge Wells Labour priorities are:

To make a plan to get us past Covid and the cost of living crisis.

To create better and safer towns and villages.

To build more genuinely affordable houses to buy and rent.

To be more ambitious locally in tackling the climate crisis.

And to listen and act more on what residents say.


The Tunbridge Wells Alliance were also approached but didn’t respond.


Times comment: Tough decisions for whoever is in charge

The elections in May could be crucial for Tunbridge Wells. Since the last ballot in 2021, the Council has been under No Overall Control.

So far, this has not posed too much of a problem, since the Council’s main task over the last 12 months has been the Covid-19 recovery.

The last budget was nothing more than a sticking plaster, but some difficult decisions do lie ahead.

The Council’s revenue has plummeted, and it is unlikely it will return to pre-pandemic levels any time soon. It is unsustainable for a Council to keep plundering its reserves, so does the Council cut services, or sell some of its assets?

While a plan has been formulated to turn the Town Hall into a co-working space, the Assembly Hall still loses hundreds of thousands each year, and a decision will have to be made on its future.

Whoever takes charge will also have to get a grip on the woeful waste collections contract.

Ruling out working with what is the current largest party – the Conservatives – could prove a short-sighted move by the opposition parties who may find the electorate holds them to account for keeping the town hall in deadlock.

If the Conservatives fall, there is no guarantee a coalition, of what is likely to be three parties, will be able to work together successfully or effectively if they gain control.

Other than being united in opposition, they are three distinct political groups, with different ideologies, with very little in common.

As one councillor put it last week: “Whatever happens in May, it will likely result in complete chaos.”

For the sake of Tunbridge Wells, let’s hope not.

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