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Elections 2021: Conservative leader Steve Count explains why he believes Tories lost overall control of Cambridgeshire County Council

The leader of the Conservative group on Cambridgeshire County Council has explained what he believes was the primary reason the party lost overall control of the county in the local elections.

Cllr Steve Count
Cllr Steve Count

The Conservatives won 28 seats out of 61, three short of a majority, and eight seats fewer than they won in 2017. The Liberal Democrats secured 20 seats, five more than in 2017, picking up a number of seats in South Cambridgeshire and East Cambridgeshire.

Cllr Steve Count, who was re-elected in March North and Waldersey, said the extent of housing development and infrastructure plans was “possibly the main reason” his party lost seats in the south of the county.

He said: “I’m disappointed that we are going back into no overall control. We have been there before and made it work to a certain extent, but it’s not quite as easy and I don’t think it’s quite as decisive. We will see how it goes. Obviously we have got to talk to the other groups as to what they want to be doing moving forward but, a bit of disappointment on my part.

“I think that you can see that there is a clear geographical divide in where our policies have appealed to the members of the voting public, and where we have failed to get over the line, which is in the south east of the county.

“So we are going to look hard at the differences there and what has caused this change in opinion. I do think that the sheer volume of growth of the county in the south east has been driving a certain amount of this. And it’s a matter, if there is going to be growth, of making sure that it’s the right growth and explaining that to the people. That seems to be probably the major election issue I would say.”

He added: “Every area is affected by a major new development or a major new piece of infrastructure, and whilst they sit on the drawing board they are only seen as a detrimental impact to any area.

“Of course, once they are delivered, such as the guided busway, all of a sudden people start thinking a little bit differently, that they may very well have delivered some benefits to the area. But I think at the moment just the sheer quantum of development is causing quite a lot of concern for a lot of people.

“I would say that is possibly the main reason - the amount of growth. Of course, that’s not decided by the county council, but I think that it is reflected in the votes.

He referenced development at Waterbeach, Northstowe, Cambridge West and Bourn Airfield as examples and added: “They have got to be linked by things such as the Cam Metro or East West Rail and in each and every area there is something quite large happening. I think that has created some of the difficulties. And it’s not just those specific ones.”

Asked why voters would punish the Conservatives and not the Liberal Democrats, as they are the party with control of the district council in South Cambridgeshire - which was not up for election - Cllr Count said:“Look at the campaigning materia. If we take East West Rail, in the south of the county the Lib Dems campaign was ‘we don’t want it here, put it in the north’ and in the north of the county it was ‘we don’t want it here put it in the south’.”

He added: “It’s always a case of what they don’t want. And because of the people who don’t want it, I think that has been quite a valuable point for them. There hasn’t been so much about what they do want or what they will accept - more about objecting to what is being proposed.”

The Tories have also been criticised over the ‘farmgate’ controversy.

The party’s former deputy leader on the council, Cllr Roger Hickford, resigned from the authority after the publication of a report concerning his occupancy of Manor Farm, Girton, as a tenant of the county council’s farms estate. The report of the investigation has been withheld from the public.

Both seats up for grabs in Cllr Hickford’s former division, Shelfords and Sawston, were gained by Liberal Democrats. Had the Tories held them, they would have been just one short of a majority.

But asked if farmgate had played a role, Cllr Count said he had nothing further to add.

Asked what happens now his party has lost overall control, he said there will be discussions between the different groups.

He said: “It may be that between the parties they want a different leader, it may be that they want the same. It really is a case of just starting to have conversations and see what it is that people want to be doing in the next four years and to see where we have consensus or can gain consensus, and to see what unites us rather than what divides us.”

Cllr Count said it is his “desire” to stay on as leader of the Conservative group. Asked if his position is in any doubt, he said: “That’s very much up to the group to decide, that’s done on a yearly basis, and that’s done now between now and the next AGM, and of course the group will be taking our performance into account at that decision, I have no doubt.

“Until they have decided, very much like the council, what they want to do moving forwards, we are in a holding pattern at the moment, but I look forward to talking to them and explaining to them my wishes for moving forward as a leader and seeing if that is acceptable to them.”

The Conservatives were also shocked by the result of the Cambridgeshire and Peterborough mayoral election, in which incumbent Tory James Palmer - who had been favourite to win a second term - lost out to Labour’s Dr Nik Johnson.

There was better news later on Saturday evening for the Tories though, when Darryl Preston was elected police and crime commissioner for Cambridgeshire and Peterborough.

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