John Marriott

Columnist

John was a councillor for thirty years, finally retiring in 2017. A schoolteacher by profession, he served on the North Hykeham Town Council (1987-2011), the North Kesteven District Council (1987-1999, 2001-2007) and the Lincolnshire County Council (2001-2017). He was also a County Council member of the former Lincolnshire Police Authority for eight years until standing down in 2009. In 1997 he was the Lib Dem Parliamentary candidate for Sleaford and North Hykeham. He is currently not a member of any political party.


If you think that this will be just another article about ‘thanks for getting Brexit done’ or about the ‘vaccine bounce’ or another dose of Johnson and Starmer bashing, you would be wrong. I will leave the deep analysis to others.

This article is about the LOCAL elections, supposedly about LOCAL issues. Were they really only about “potholes and fly tipping” as the Tory county leader, Cllr Martin Hill, claimed that the voters had told him? If that’s all what local government means to you, with officers and councillors on inflated salaries and allowances, that is rather sad. If so, then perhaps you should stop reading now.

First a word or two about the elections for the Police and Crime Commissioner (PCC). My views on this post are well known. However, it is clear to me now that the idea of putting one person in charge of scrutinising policing is unfortunately not going to go away.

I have written before about abolishing the role and apparently, when questioned by The Lincolnite, at least two of the five PCC candidates replied that, if elected, they would do just that. The question I therefore ask is why they decided to stand for election in the first place?

Having listened to their replies when questioned, I really do wonder how much some of them actually knew about policing in general, or even how much they would be able to influence how it was delivered in the county. In all honesty, some were probably just there to fly the flag, although they would never admit this.

With that in mind, it made sense that the present incumbent was re-elected quite convincingly, without recourse to the second preference vote. You would have expected him to have learned a bit about what the job actually entailed, although, knowing the county, it could equally be argued that it had as much to do with the party for whom he was standing.

Not that his first term went swimmingly. Does anyone remember the tale of the new Chief Constable, who never was? Having worked with him when we were both members of the administration group that ran the County Council between 2013 and 2017, he struck me as a reasonably competent individual.

How much he will be able to be his own man and how much he will be influenced by Home Secretary remains to be seen. One of the features of this year’s election, the third to take place since the system was introduced in 2012, was the apparent demise of the independent PCC. Of the 39 positions up for grabs in England and Wales, the Tories won 30, Labour 8 and Plaid Cymru 1. At least, at 31%, the turnout was a little more respectable this time.

There were also delayed elections for the City of Lincoln Council. I really don’t know why they still elect a third of their council in three years out of four, normally saving the fourth for the County Council elections. Judging by the figures, which also delivered it nearly 9,000 of the 30,000 County Council votes it obtained, it’s clear that for the Labour Party Lincoln offers the only vestige of power in an otherwise Conservative county at district council level.

The Lib Dems managed to win a seat, the first they have had for a number of years, probably, from my own experience, by throwing “the kitchen sink” at the ward in question, as the Council Leader eloquently put it. (Yes, Ric, that’s what non-Tory and Labour parties have to do round here to get anywhere – I bet the Lib Dems also threw a few sinks around in Gainsborough to get their three County Council seats!) Now that UKIP has departed the scene, it’s rather nice to have another party represented other than the dynamic duo at City Hall.

As for the County Council elections, it was very much business as usual, the Conservative variety, of course. Since its foundation in 1974, Lincolnshire County Council has only twice been under no overall control. The first occasion was in 1993 when the Tories lost their overall majority, and the Labour and Lib Dem groups formed a short-lived administration.

The second time was in 2013 when a large number of UKIP members were elected, all of them disappearing four years later, with a couple becoming and returning as Conservatives. During that period the Tories were able then to continue in power with the help of our small Lib Dem group and three independents.

With 54 seats out of 70, there will, as was the case four years ago, be precious little that the opposition (Labour 4, Lib Dems 3, Independents 9) can do to influence things and, judging by an average turnout of around 30% not that many of you seem to be bothered.

There was not much evidence of an election taking place where I live in North Hykeham. I did get a combined leaflet from the Conservative candidates for County Council and PCC, so I can now say that I have heard from my local councillor, having chided him last February, and I also got a leaflet from an independent candidate and that was it.

It was a bit different when I used to stand for election. Not only did I try to get at least two election leaflets delivered by hand; but also at least two or three FOCUS leaflets during the year. I also knocked on a few doors as well. You really do have to ask yourself how serious some of our ‘candidates’ really are about actually wanting to win.

Is Lincolnshire such a Conservative voting county?

The answer is probably yes; but not as massively as election results show. Had seats been distributed according to the percentage of votes cast for each party, the Conservatives, with around 55% of the vote, would have won around 38 of the 70 seats, still a workable majority; but not the massive one they currently enjoy.

Even allowing for the customary low turnout in local elections, I reckon that this ratio is about right. Of course, we are not very likely to get a change in the voting system for local elections in a hurry. In fact, the government is thinking of changing the rules so that future PCCs and Regional and City Mayors will also be elected by what is called ‘first past the post’ instead of by first and second preference votes as is the case at present.

I am rather surprised that the Labour Party doesn’t champion a change in the voting system. After all, it got 31,240 votes last week compared with the Tories’ 98,570 and ended up with four seats, all in the City of Lincoln. The Tories got 55.4% of the votes and were rewarded with 77% of the seats. By my reckoning, Labour’s performance should have entitled it to around 12 seats.

Ironically, the only other party that actually did quite well out of the current system was those champions of a change in the voting system, the Lib Dems, whose still active base around Gainsborough yielded three seats. Using the same calculation as I did for Labour, the Lib Dems’ 5.1% overall should have given them two seats at the most.

The real difficulty in making the voting system reflect the relative support for all parties is that there is clearly a need to maintain the link between the councillor and their division. Possibly something like the Alternative Vote, which was rejected in a referendum nearly ten years ago, while not strictly PR or even the second preference vote as used in PCC elections might be the answer in some closely fought areas, or even keeping the present system for most seats and having a ‘top up’ system as in the Scottish and Welsh Parliamentary and Senedd elections might work. Whatever system you adopt, baring a political earthquake, I cannot honestly see the Conservatives not being the largest party or group around here.

As I wrote at the start of this piece, for many voters the elections around here were probably not really about schools, social care and the environment. They should have been; but, more likely they were more a reflection on national issues. 

Local government at any level can do little to change things if central government isn’t in favour. Councils like Lincolnshire have to a greater extent morphed into commissioners rather than direct providers of services; most schools now take their orders from the Education Secretary rather than the Local Education Authority.

I am also suspicious of how much autonomy the 30 Conservative PCCs will have when the Home Secretary casts her beady eye over their activities. Perhaps I am just being paranoid. I hope so. 

Ever more reliance on the discredited Council Tax to plug the holes created by austerity has left many councils in dire straits. The fact that Lincolnshire can still provide services to a reasonable standard is great credit to both councillors of all political persuasion and officers. However, it could be a great deal better.

We could streamline our councils and reform our local government finance. We could devolve more power to local councils instead of relying on individuals to make a difference. This will only happen if local government grasps the nettle and puts its own house in order.

Then, with elections riding on more than ‘potholes and fly tipping’, we might start to get a much higher turnout at elections and some councillor candidates, who are serious about making a real difference.

John was a councillor for thirty years, finally retiring in 2017. A schoolteacher by profession, he served on the North Hykeham Town Council (1987-2011), the North Kesteven District Council (1987-1999, 2001-2007) and the Lincolnshire County Council (2001-2017). He was also a County Council member of the former Lincolnshire Police Authority for eight years until standing down in 2009. In 1997 he was the Lib Dem Parliamentary candidate for Sleaford and North Hykeham. He is currently not a member of any political party.

It looks as if the local elections are going ahead in May after all. But, apparently, if we decided to risk a trip to the polling station, we are being told to bring our own writing implements and, of course, our masks.

Much as I am against the idea except if circumstances preclude a visit, on this particular occasion I would have thought that voting by post for all might have been a better idea; but I’ve been reliably informed that Royal Mail can’t deliver on that (no pun intended).

I am a big fan of local government, even in its current emasculated form. I want to see it given more powers. I want local government structure and finance to be reformed. After all, the council tax, which was cobbled together to replace the dreaded poll tax, is still based in England on 1993 property values. Then there’s the confusion in three tier areas like Lincolnshire about which council does what.

However, we live in unusual times. If we behave ourselves, we could be back to something like normal, whatever you think normal is, by the end of the year. So, why add to our problems and therefore why not park the local elections until next year?

As the government intends to plough ahead, there will apparently be voting for candidates for the Lincolnshire County Council, for the Police and Crime Commissioner and a few district council by elections. As far as the county is concerned, with the possible exception of Lincoln City, there will only be one winner, and that is the Conservative Party. There might be a few Tories masquerading as Independents, who slip under the wire.

Indeed, back in 2013, the last time I was elected, (thanks largely to a UKIP candidate, living in a care home, who never emerged not even at the count; but whose votes probably denied my Tory opponent victory) the surge of UKIP managed for only the second time in the County Council’s history dating back to 1973 to prevent the Tories from getting an overall majority. By 2017, those Ukippers had disappeared and those that survived had donned the blue rosette.

In the past four years since I retired from the County Council, I have heard nothing at all from my Conservative county councillor, who, I believe, lives in Skellingthorpe. In fact I haven’t heard from any other party or individual either. I wonder if he will be standing again. Mind you, his party will certainly have the funds to mail me a few leaflets, whose hand delivery, I believe, may be outlawed because of COVID.

And as for canvassing, that was becoming a dying art even before the virus struck. In any case, who is going to open their door to a stranger, especially with a clip board and possibly sporting a rosette, at the moment? There’s always social media, you may say. And who do you think has got that tied up? Given the ‘vaccine bounce’, as most people get their information from the media, either local or national, there is surely only one show in town.

Then there’s the Police and Crime Commissioner (PCC), another bright idea from across the pond, shoehorned into this country and worked out seemingly on the back of a fag packet, at the expense of democratically accountable Police Authorities and whose support via the ballot box barely makes double figures.

Surely the saga of the suspension and reinstatement of our former Chief Constable some years ago, at no small cost to the tax payer, I might add, and the recent musical chairs appointment of our latest one should make you ask why the judgement of a single person should carry so much weight.

I believe that, once elected, the PCC appoints their Deputy, who, as far as I know, has no electoral mandate and yet could take over if anything happened to their boss until a replacement could be voted in. Is that really democracy?

So, what do I do? Yes, I will hopefully have had my two jabs by then, but I could still be carrying the virus. I’ve been pretty careful for nearly a year now so, why risk anything? What if I just happen to forget to bring my pen or pencil? I suppose I could apply for a postal vote; but, under normal circumstances, I’m not in favour of them.

If I did decide to go to the polling station, judging by recent history, I would probably spoil both ballots anyway, given what I’ve already written. I know that some people disapprove of this action, so I hope that they exercise their democratic right. You know, I think I might just stay at home on polling day, and I reckon many people might do the same. Why break the habit of a lifetime as far as local elections are concerned?

John was a councillor for thirty years, finally retiring in 2017. A schoolteacher by profession, he served on the North Hykeham Town Council (1987-2011), the North Kesteven District Council (1987-1999, 2001-2007) and the Lincolnshire County Council (2001-2017). He was also a County Council member of the former Lincolnshire Police Authority for eight years until standing down in 2009. In 1997 he was the Lib Dem Parliamentary candidate for Sleaford and North Hykeham. He is currently not a member of any political party.

As someone who spent most of his rather modest political career supporting and actively campaigning for a bypass for North Hykeham, the news that over £100 million of the £155 million cost for the road will come from the government is welcome news.

Mind you, we have been here before. Back in the 1990s I was part of the North Hykeham Town Council’s campaign, which culminated in a 4,000 plus signature petition being presented to the County Council, with copies delivered to opposition party spokespersons in Westminster.

Unfortunately, our local Tory MP at the time refused his support, so we never got to meet the Transport Minister of the time.

How times have changed. Over twenty years ago we were still relying on plans for a so called ‘Eastern Bypass’ that first saw the light of day in 1951.

I still remember the packed public meeting NHTC called in 1995 that voted for a road from Pennell’s roundabout, bisecting North and South Hykeham, heading up Waddington Cliff by the old Barbot’s gym, heading south of Canwick and Bracebridge Heath and over the Witham before joining the A158 Wragby Road at what we now call Bunkers Hill.

I am assuming that, given the cost, this road is likely to be single carriage way, which clearly won’t go down well in some quarters.

Quite frankly, with money tight and expected to go a long way to help to pay for other equally desperately needed road improvement schemes around the country, I personally could live with that.

Any road is better than no road at all, but given my now rather advanced age, will I live long enough to see it completed?

Of course, for those motorists who value speed above all else and can’t possibly wait a minute longer to get from A to B, a dual carriageway is clearly preferable.

As for the comment that it’s all about the Newark Road crossroads traffic lights, believe me, that junction has been over capacity for years.

No wonder the estate where I live gets something like a couple of hundred traffic movements through it at peak periods every workday to avoid it!

No amount of tweaking will make matters better and, as for replacing the traffic lights with a roundabout, not only would you have to demolish most of the buildings nearby, just look at that roundabout few hundred yards down the road to see how that alone copes with traffic.

As for all the houses in Waddington, that argument could have been advanced when the dedicated line of the original route up the cliff had had to be abandoned over twenty years ago and the new route put forward that ran around South Hykeham and via a flyover at Station Road, Waddington, on towards Bracebridge Heath.

That’s why the County Council bought up several houses in the area at the time, including a recently self built home of a former teaching colleague of mine, that would suffer from planning blight.

I see that the flyover idea appears to have been abandoned and that Station Road, Waddington, looks, according to the plans, eventually to be turned into two cul de sacs, allowing the new road to proceed at ground level.

In some ways that’s a shame, given the prospect of driving from Bracebridge Heath with the impressive vista of the Trent Valley appearing in front of your eyes as you descended on the flyover.

Mind you, if, and it’s still a big ‘if’, the new road is ever built, the view will still be mighty impressive.

The reason for Transport England’s original insistence that the Eastern relief road would be single carriageway some fifteen years ago was because it was not considered a strategic road.

Even if the North Hykeham Relief Road ever does join up with the Eastern Relief Road, that combined road will still not, in my opinion, be classed as ‘strategic’.

Now, when it comes to the A46 Western Bypass, that’s a different matter.

This road is of clear strategic importance in taking away traffic from Lincoln, which moves between the A1 East Midlands corridor, the East Coast Mainline and the east coast ports.

If extra money is to be found for dualling, as I have said many times before, it should be spent on those stretches of the Western Bypass that are still single carriageway.

Whatever happens will not greatly relieve traffic that flows in and out of Lincoln via Newark, Doddington and Skellingthorpe Roads.

As far as the last two are concerned, the chief culprits are those level crossings. Now a really imaginative solution might be to put the railway line BELOW these roads.

I reckon there is sufficient distance between the crossing at Hykeham Station and Doddington Road for a gradual gradient.

However, there would be a cost in addition to finance, that would inevitably require train services between Newark and Lincoln to be terminated at North Hykeham while work took place.

The problem here lies clearly with Network Rail, whose ability to deliver on projects, even when it is prepared to spend money, is questionable. Just look at those two pedestrian rail bridges in Lincoln.

John was a councillor for thirty years, finally retiring in 2017. A schoolteacher by profession, he served on the North Hykeham Town Council (1987-2011), the North Kesteven District Council (1987-1999, 2001-2007) and the Lincolnshire County Council (2001-2017). He was also a County Council member of the former Lincolnshire Police Authority for eight years until standing down in 2009. In 1997 he was the Lib Dem Parliamentary candidate for Sleaford and North Hykeham. He is currently not a member of any political party.

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