Walsall Council election 2021 preview: All to play for in unpredictable borough

We take an in-depth look at the state of play in Walsall ahead of what's set to be a very close election.

Walsall is more often under no overall control than led by one party
Walsall is more often under no overall control than led by one party

Walsall Profile

Population: 283,663

Politics

Walsall Council has spent more time under no overall control since it was formed than it has been run by one main party. The Tories landed a majority in 2019 and now run the council by a narrow margin.

The authority is finely balanced when it comes to local politics. On a national level the borough has two Tory MPs to Labour’s one. Eddie Hughes’s Walsall North constituency – Labour for most of its existence until 2017 – is getting bluer with each passing election.

History

The borough as it stands was formed in 1974 when it was moved from the historic county of Staffordshire to become part of the new West Midlands county.

It centres on the main town of Walsall, where the council house is based, and also includes Darlaston, Brownhills, Pelsall, Willenhall, Bloxwich and Aldridge.

Claim to fame

Walsall is famous for its leather industry, which saw the small market town transformed into an international centre of saddle-making after the coal mines had run dry in the late 19th century.

At its peak in around 1900, around 10,000 people were employed in the town, preparing leather and making saddles, horse bridles and other items. Manufacturers of leather still exist in the town to this day, and the Queen’s handbags and saddles for the Royal family are made there.

The importance of the industry to Walsall was recognised in 1988 when the Princess Royal opened Walsall Leather Museum. The borough is also home to the sprawling park and conservation area the Walsall Arboretum, which opened in 1874 and spans 170 acres.

The town centre was once considered a haven for independent shops, although it has struggled in recent years with many of them closing down. Its plight has been mirrored by Walsall Football Club, now dossing around in the lower reaches of League Two.

The town is also home to the New Art Gallery, which is known for showcasing up and coming local artists. The borough has a rich musical heritage, with Slade frontman Noddy Holder born in Caldmore.

Future prospects

Like the rest of the Black Country, Walsall is going through a period of transition. Regeneration projects have sprung up all over the borough as council chiefs look to cement a bright future after Covid. Building has started on a new housing development at the old Caparo steelworks site, and the Phoenix 10 scheme is finally underway.

Bringing more old brownfield sites back into use for business and housing is one of the main challenges ahead in Walsall. Most would agree that improvements to the town centre are also badly needed.

In recent years the Saddlers Centre has been hit with a number of shops pulling out, including M&S, although recently new stores have started to fill some of the empty units.

Unemployment is above the national average and remains a key concern. The town received a major boost this month when it emerged the much-loved children’s hospice Acorns had been saved after a long-running appeal.

All to play for in the most unpredictable of boroughs

The balance of power is as tight as ever in the politically unpredictable borough that is Walsall.

Control has swung back and forth between the Conservatives and Labour over recent years and, just like in neighbouring Dudley, things are rarely dull when election time comes around.

For 29 out of the 48 years it has been in existence Walsall Council has been under no overall control, and it was not until 2004 that the first Tory administration gained power.

The turbulence has continued ever since, reaching a peak in 2018 when the Tories seized control of Walsall Council House by the slenderest of margins when then-Mayor Marco Longhi, now an MP, controversially used his deciding vote to re-elect himself.

They landed a majority in the following year’s elections after gaining two seats, and now run a chamber made up of 32 Conservatives, 26 Labour and two Lib Dem councillors.

It wouldn’t take much to shake things up again, and heading into this year’s elections a victory for either main party – nor the prospect of the council ending up in no overall control – can be ruled out.

It raises the prospect of councillors spending the post-election period attempting to thrash out a deal for power - something Walsall is no stranger to.

In terms of vote numbers, the Tories have been in the ascendency in Walsall in recent years, and council leader Mike Bird will be quietly confident that his party will not only remain in power, but extend their grip on the borough.

Council leader Mike Bird.

The borough has two Conservative MPs in Eddie Hughes and Wendy Morton, to Labour’s one in Valerie Vaz.

Last time these seats were contested in 2016 Labour won 10 to the Tories seven. On the face of it, few seats seats seem particularly vulnerable this year, although the Tories will undoubtedly have their eyes on Bloxwich East.

Councillor Aftab Nawaz, who took over as Labour group leader after Sean Coughlan stood down in 2019, knows that gaining just four seats can see his party take control of the council.

If Labour wins he has vowed to set up a cross-party Covid team, which would be tasked with spearheading the borough’s recovery from the pandemic.

The Tories meanwhile have used the election campaign to highlight their record on regeneration, with new train stations approved for Willenhall and Darlaston, and the £100m transformation of the Phoenix 10 site underway.

Mr Bird has also committed to a revamp of the town centre, with the authority recently awarded Government cash from the Future High Streets Fund.

In recent months a political row broke out over the location of a temporarily traveller transit site proposed for Pleck.

As a crucial swing council, Walsall will be watched keenly by Sir Keir Starmer as he bids to halt the blue wave that is sweeping across parts of the West Midlands.

With these elections marking the first big test for the Labour leader since his rise to power, it is in places such as Walsall where his progress will ultimately be measured.

What to look out for

A total of 22 seats are being contested on May 6, around one third of the council.

It is the first time these particular seats have been contested for five years after the pandemic forced last year's elections to be postponed.

Both the Conservatives and Labour will be hoping to swallow up the majority of the votes, with Ukip, once such a major force at a local level, no longer a concern.

Both Lib Dem seats on the council will go before voters, and if things are tight, councillors' Ian Shires and Daniel Barker could have a big say in who runs the authority providing they both hold onto their seats.

Several candidates are standing for the Reform UK party – the new name for Nigel Farage's Brexit Party – although with Brexit now settled, the party has not had anything like the attention and traction as its predecessor.

Graham Eardley, the former Walsall Ukip chairman, is among the Reform UK candidates, and is standing in the Tory stronghold of Pelsall.

Among the tightest battlegrounds last time out was Bloxwich West, which Conservative Brad Allen gained from Labour, edging home by just 109 votes.

However, the Conservatives have performed strongly in both Bloxwich seats in subsequent elections.

Short Heath also proved to be intriguing in 2016, where the votes were fairly evenly spilt between four parties. There were just 336 votes between the victorious candidate, Lib Dem Mr Barker, and the Conservative candidate in fourth, with Ukip also taking a large slice of the vote.

Labour's candidate in the ward, Elliot Pfebve, has served as a politician in his homeland of Zimbabwe.

Council deputy leader Adrian Andrew will be attempting to defend his substantial majority in Pheasey Park Farm.

In Pelsall all three seats will go to a vote, due to current Conservative councillors Sally Neville and Marco Longhi MP stepping down.

Former council leader Sean Coughlan will be defending the Willenhall South seat he first won for Labour in 1995, while Mayoress Chris Bott is aiming to turn Darlaston South red, having previously won the seat as an independent.

Local elections mainstay Pete Smith, a former councillor and borough Mayor, is back for another campaign representing no party in Blakenall.

He is vowing to put "people before party" and is campaigning for "greater neighbourhood democracy".

In three elections since 2016 the former Labour councillor has given his old party a scare by taking nearly a third of the vote each time.

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