Tories aiming for seats in politically chaotic Sandwell borough

Political editor Peter Madeley looks at the ongoing divisions surrounding Sandwell Council.

The day before lockdown, in High Street, West Bromwich.
The day before lockdown, in High Street, West Bromwich.

While Labour continues to dominate Sandwell Council, the authority is arguably as divided as any in the Black Country.

The ruling Labour group has been mired in turmoil since the 2016 publication of the Wragge report, which contained a series of explosive revelations relating to members’ alleged involvement in misconduct and dodgy land deals.

Since then the council has had four leaders, while numerous senior officers have come and gone. A raft of councillors have either been suspended, deselected, or both.

Claims of national party interference in local matters – including candidate selection – continue to hang over Sandwell like a bad stench, while allegations of corruption, racism, sexism and all manner of wrongdoing flow back and forth.

To many observers, the line between the roles of elected members and council officers appear to have become blurred.

In the past week former council leader Yvonne Davies and Great Bridge councillor Joanne Hadley became the latest in a stream of senior councillors to quit the Labour Party.

Like many of those before her Mrs Davies did not go quietly, accusing Labour of attempting to “bury the truth” about wrongdoing and misconduct at the authority.

Councillor Maria Crompton is the current leader, although the Labour group is likely to hold a leadership election in the months following the council poll.

The state of chaos in which Sandwell exists can perhaps best be exemplified by the fact that no fewer than six Labour candidates who won seats in 2016 are now standing against their old party.

Split

As things stand, Labour holds 62 of the 72 seats on Sandwell Council.

This year 27 seats are up for grabs, with elections for one third of the council plus a number of vacancies.

The Tories should be rubbing their hands with glee, although it has often been said that the only political group more dysfunctional than Sandwell Labour is Sandwell Conservatives.

It was 2011 the last time a Conservative candidate was elected in Sandwell, and since Anne Hughes lost her Charlemont with Grove Vale seat in 2015 the authority has had no blue representation.

Councillor Bill Gavan did apply to join the Tories after he quit Labour last year, but the move never came off.

The Tories have only run the council for one year since its formation in 1973, and while they won’t be taking control this year, the party has genuine hopes of picking up a few seats.

The borough now has two Tory MPs for the first time in its history, suggesting a shift towards the Conservatives.

Tory campaigners in the borough say many voters who switched to them from Labour in the 2019 general election cited council turmoil – and not Brexit or Jeremy Corbyn – as the main reason for their decision.

The Conservative campaign has also been boosted by Labour chaos over candidate selections, which has left some heavy-hitters among the independent candidates who could potentially split the Labour vote.

What to look out for

The ex-Labour candidates standing against their old party include the authority’s longest serving councillor, John Edwards.

John Edwards

An independent candidate in the Greets Green and Lyng seat, he won with 84 per cent of the vote in 2016. Councillor Edwards went out with a bang, criticising the “dismal performance” of Sir Keir Starmer.

Newton councillor and Cabinet member Joyce Underhill, who was deselected after 30 years, is also standing as an independent, as is Sharon Davies in Langley. Ian Jones, a Tipton Green councillor for 23 years, is standing as an independent in Princes End after accusing Labour of “covering up wrongdoing” in his resignation letter to the party.

Meanwhile, Bill Cherrington, who hit out at Labour for “stifling democracy” when he quit the party in 2019, is standing as a candidate for Reform UK in Princes End.

And Caroline White, who who was forced out of the Labour Party over claims she campaigned for an opposing candidate, is standing as an independent in Cradley Heath and Old Hill.

Six seats are currently vacant. They include one in Friar Park after the death of Geoff Lewis last year, and one seat in Wednesbury South following the death of Bob Lloyd.

The Rowley seat vacated by Chris Tranter when he died last year will also be contested on May 6. In the weeks following the local elections there will be a separate by-election for the Tividale seat of Sandra Hevican, who died this year of Covid.

Steve Trow and Sue Crumpton have both stood down in Old Warley.

Councillor Elaine Giles has been moved over from Bristnall to Newton, while former Cradley Heath and Old Hill councillor John Tipper, who stood down in 2016, is back as a new candidate for Old Warley.

Mayor Dr Ann Jaron

Hateley Heath councillor Paul Sandars is retiring, as are Babu Singh Bawa (St Paul’s) and Linda Horton (Smethwick). The current Mayor, Ann Jaron, is standing down in Abbey after 25 years.

Dr Jaron had retired as a GP in 2019 but returned to the profession last year to help NHS staff fight the coronavirus pandemic. Council leader Mrs Crompton is defending her Tividale seat, while fellow cabinet member Councillor Farut Shaeen stands in Soho and Victoria. The Tories will undoubtedly have an eye on snatching Charlemont with Grove Vale, as well as Great Barr with Yew Tree.

They will also be hoping to spring an upset in wards such as Hateley Heath and Friar Park, places that have traditionally been Labour strongholds but saw a large Conservative turnout in the general election. All things considered, the Conservatives have a big challenge on their hands in stopping Labour’s biggest opposition in Sandwell from being Labour.

Sandwell

Population: 328,774

Politics

Traditionally a Labour heartland, with the Tories running the council for just one year in nearly four decades. The local Labour Party has been beset by in-fighting and scandal for years, although the Conservatives have yet to take advantage at the polls. In contrast, following the 2019 general election, three of the boroughs four parliamentary constituencies – West Bromwich West, West Bromwich East, and Halesowen and Rowley Regis – are Tory held, with Warley now the sole Labour seat.

History

The metropolitan borough was formed in 1974 and is named after the Sandwell Priory, the ruins of which are located in Sandwell Valley. It spans a densely populated part of the West Midlands conurbation across the Black Country to the border with Birmingham. Its main towns are Oldbury – where the council house sits – Rowley Regis, Smethwick, Tipton, Wednesbury and West Bromwich, the latter being the biggest town in the borough. Sandwell became a unitary authority in 1986 after the West Midlands County Council was abolished, and since then has been divided into 24 wards represented by 72 councillors.

Claim to fame

Sandwell is home to attractions including Bishop Asbury Cottage museum in Great Barr, known for being the boyhood home of Francis Asbury, one of the first two bishops of the Methodist Episcopal Church in the US. The borough also has Wednesbury Museum and Art Gallery, West Bromwich Manor House, the stunning Sandwell Valley Country Park, and the Guru Nanak Gurdwara in Smethwick. It is the home of the famous West Bromwich Albion, who are currently battling to stay up in the Premier League. West Bromwich’s popular New Square Shopping Centre attracts visitors from all over the region. Famous sons and daughters of Sandwell include Smethwick-born actress Julie Walters and comedian and Baggies fan Frank Skinner, who was born in West Bromwich.

Future prospects

Regeneration is the key word across Sandwell. Rowley Regis, Smethwick and West Bromwich have recently been handed £67.5m from the Government’s Towns Fund, meaning run down areas can finally get long overdue upgrades. The borough has also been boosted by its involvement in next year’s Commonwealth Games in Birmingham, with the £73m Sandwell Aquatics Centre set to host swimming events at the competition in July and August 2022. Connectivity to other parts of the region – the lack of which has been a major issue for years – is set to improve through the Wednesbury to Brierley Hill Metro extension. And to the relief of motorists everywhere, a £30m revamp of Birchley Island in Oldbury is finally set to come to fruition after decades of stalled plans. A new scheme in Friar Park will see homes built on an old industrial site.

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