Fears over how May local elections will work under Covid restrictions

Community leaders have raised concerns about the safety of elections due to take place in May – and the impact of restrictions on campaigning for candidates.

Cannock Chase Council elections were postponed last year along with all local elections due to the coronavirus pandemic.

They are now set to go ahead on May 6, when 13 seats will be up for grabs. The district is one of two local authorities in Staffordshire that elects councillors ‘by thirds’, meaning there are polls three out of every four years, alongside Tamworth Borough Council which will have 10 seats contested.

Both councils were due to have an election-free year in 2021. But their May polls will coincide with a full Staffordshire County Council election and a ballot to select a new Police, Fire and Crime Commissioner for the area.

Last week the Government published a May 2021 polls delivery plan setting out measures to enable elections to go ahead safely. Around £92 million of grant funding will be given to local authorities running elections, including £31m to directly address costs associated with making the process Covid-secure

But Cannock Chase Council leader George Adamson said: “I attended a meeting of the District Councils Network this week where this was discussed at length, with two senior civil servants present. It is fair to say that leaders of all parties were unhappy with the decision, as were many returning officers.

“There are concerns about how safe the elections will be, including the counts, and the effect of the pandemic on turnout. Concern was also expressed about ensuring a level playing field for all parties involved.

“The meeting was promised further details soon, but it was confirmed that only two assenters will be needed to sign nomination forms for district elections and that schools and vaccination centres should not be used as polling stations.

“I know that our election staff will work tirelessly to ensure that the elections are carried out as well as they possibly can be.”

Election candidates and their agents will be given additional guidance on how to carry out their campaigns safely, as current lockdown measures restrict traditional activities such as leafleting and door knocking. Other methods such as campaigning online and by phone, as well as postal delivery of leaflets, can be carried out without increasing face to face contact however.

Earlier this week Cannock Chase Community Independents Group wrote to MP Chloe Smith, Minister of State for the Cabinet Office, to raise concerns about the leafleting restrictions.

Councillor Paul Woodhead said: “Potential candidates, political parties and independents are not permitted to circulate leaflets, newsletters and communications unless you can afford for someone to post it for you through your letter box.

“With a second class stamp costing 65p and approximately 45,000 homes in Cannock Chase, one newsletter would cost about £29,250. Even just one county council division like Hednesford and Rawnsley, of about 12,500 homes, would cost about £8,125 and my own ward of Hednesford South would cost about £1,625 for the 2,500 homes.

“We, like all Independents and small parties, rely on our own time as well as that of our supporters to keep communicating about the community and the activities of councillors, activists and potential candidates.

“Large parties have deep pockets but we believe democracy shouldn’t be auctioned to the highest bidder and elections should be determined by who the local community believes will best represent them.”

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