The Rochester and Strood byelection is shaping up to be one of the most significant moments in British politics for many a long year. While Douglas Carswell’s victory at Clacton was long anticipated, if Mark Reckless wins next week, the shock waves will reverberate not only through the Tory party, but Labour too.
Somewhat surprisingly, the fight for the future of Lodge Hill has become a key piece of the byeletion battleground, but in unlikely and bizarre ways. As regular readers will know I have written copiously about Lodge Hill, here, here, here, here, here and here.
Mark Reckless, as I have written before, was staunchly in favour of the Lodge Hill development, to the point of making a strident speech in the Commons, lambasting Natural England, tasking the then Planning minister Nick Boles with stoking the bonfire of the Quangos, railing against bugs and vegetated shingle in the process. Boles claims he was repeatedly lobbied by Reckless to push through the development, of what is effectively a new town, at Lodge Hill.
Once Medway planning committee had unanimously approved the development, against the advice of Natural England, and in the face of very stiff opposition, Reckless changed his view, and started campaigning against the development; slamming Medway Council for approving the development in the way that they did (though not on conservation grounds). Remember that the planning committee was dominated by Tory councillors, but included Labour and LibDems who all voted in favour. And the entire Tory Cabinet who run Medway Council were unanimously behind the proposal to develop Lodge Hill.
A few short weeks later Reckless joined UKIP and had, just by coincidence, a ready made cause celebre up his sleeve, with which to woo voters who were so appalled at the behaviour of their local council.
Reckless joined the numerous voices calling for the planning committee’s decision to be “called in.” That means the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, Eric Pickles, takes the decision out of the local authority’s hands and arranges for there to be a Public Inquiry, chaired by a Planning Inspector.
Reckless has made a very interesting accusation, that the Medway Tories have been personally assured that the Decision will not be “called in” and that Mr Pickles will give them the green light to proceed with the development. He has called this a stitch up.
A Tory Councillor who has also defected to UKIP, Peter Rodberg said:
“After they told us government and council had reached a secret deal, I recall that Peter Hicks, Deputy Chair of Planning and a Strood Rural Councillor, then said we should all keep this quiet until after the election. That was the last straw for me.”
In a very unusual move, The Department published a letter rejecting this claim. Now Reckless is a barrister and will clearly know that making such accusations is a very serious business. I doubt he would done so unless there was more substance yet to be revealed. So this particular element of the story has yet to play out fully.
Panic Stricken Tories
The panic-stricken Tory HQ launched a very expensive “primary” to give the local constituency the impression that they had some say in who the Tory candidate for the byelection would be, but in reality they were given two choices, and chose Kelly Tolworth, Medway Councillor and Education cabinet member. The Primary was an expensive flop with only 7% of voters bothering to take part.
Interestingly both candidates in the primary campaigned as opposing the development at Lodge Hill, including Tolworth who was in the Cabinet which approved the development! She claims that she has always been against the development, but we can only assume that she sat on her hands during the many cabinet discussions she must have taken part in. Tolworth continues to campaign on the no Lodge Hill development ticket, presumably to some considerable embarrassment to her fellow cabinet members. When she loses, I don’t imagine she will be particularly warmly welcomed back into that fold.
There is no great enthusiasm from the Tory Parliamentary party to support her – despite a three line whip for Tory MPs to visit Rochester. Over 100 MPs have so far failed to visit Rochester, including 11 ministers; and a disproportionately large number of eurosceptics, who no doubt will not wish to be seen challenging Reckless on issues where they may privately share his views.
The polls indicate that Reckless will win with a substantial majority. Further panic measures have now been deployed by CCHQ – including an American style “Attack Ad“. This has been released to the press, and merely shows a video of Reckless in the COmmons in 2013, saying the things we know he said. It’s a bit pathetic really; the Tories are claiming that he is trying to hide his volte face on Lodge Hill, because he took a link to the video off his website. Of course, the speech is available for all to read in Hansard, on They Work for You, and so on.
Labour falling away
Labour chose a local candidate Naushabah Khan. Khan has been campaigning tirelessly with significant support from Labour HQ and many minister, and yet Labour poll ratings have slumped – 9% down to 16% on 31st October. Khan is supporting the local Medway Labour Councillors position to develop the Lodge Hill new town. She has been misinformed that Lodge Hill is 80% brownfield land, presumably by her own local councillors. The Planning Inspector, in rejecting Medway’s catastrophic draft core strategy, concluded that Lodge Hill was closer to RSPB’s estimate of 15% brownfield than the developer’s 53%. Either way, the 80% figure is pure fantasy. A poor performance by Labour at Rochester will heap further pressure on Ed Miliband as leader of the party.
The only party that has consistently opposed the development is the Green Party. But given that the two main players, UKIP and the Tories, at least locally, have now come out against the development, the Greens vote will be squeezed from both sides, as the protest vote will go to UKIP and the environmental vote may also be split between UKIP and the Tories. That’s assuming the voters actually believe either Reckless or Tolworth, given their rapid and change in views on it.
Lodge Hill in Limbo
Meanwhile the planning permission is in limbo, while the Department for Communities and Local Government, decide whether to call it in to be examined at a Public Inquiry. I suspect they will sit on this decision until after the General Election.
If as seems very likely, UKIP win the byelection, they may well claim that the electorate of Rochester and Strood has spoken and that the Council should change their mind about Lodge Hill. Of course this will be rejected by the Council who may well feel that they should redouble their efforts to see the development proceed, especially after the accusations that Reckless and his fellow Tory defectors have made. Reckless will then presumably lobby CLG vociferously to have the decision called in.
In the very unlikely event that the Tories win, we will have a Tory MP for Rochester who is now firmly at odds with her former council colleagues over Lodge Hill; and who will no doubt lobby the Minister to confirm that the decision is called in.
Either way, CLG can expect serious and uninterrupted lobbying from the Rochester MP, both publicly and behind the scenes, for a public inquiry over the entire Lodge Hill debacle.
I wonder whether UKIP will raise the Lodge Hill issue up into a national cause celebre for their General Election campaign. If so, it may force them to think seriously about the environment, instead of the weird rag bag of policies and half-baked ideas they currently have.