The rise of the independents in St Helens

The Rainhill Independents
The Rainhill Independents
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In many ways the 2019 local elections were extraordinary.


The Conservatives are still reeling from losing 1,334 seats on councils across the UK, with Labour losing 82 – four of those here in St Helens.

Their losses have been the Liberal Democrats’ and the Greens’ gain.

But it is arguably the rise of the independents that is the biggest story of the 2019 local and parish elections.

One area that seemed to embody the national picture, despite being almost completely driven by local issues, is Bold.

No independent councillors stood in Bold at the local elections – but Labour still lost the seat to Green Party candidate, David O’Keefe.

The Lib Dems also won more votes than Labour’s Mark Hattersley, who was selected to stand in the ward following the de-selection of the-then cabinet member, Antony Johnson.

In the parish elections, eight independents stood and all eight were elected to Bold Parish Council.

What is remarkable is that this coordinated effort only begun around two months ago.

In March, concerned residents formed the Bold and Clock Face Action Group, in response to the publication of the St Helens Local Plan submission draft.

The group, led by husband and wife Chris and Sarah Hughes, were able to mobilise support incredibly quickly.

Their first victory came when they got the council to re-run a Local Plan publication consultation after informing the council it had failed to notify residents of proposed changes to the green belt.

This bought the group and the community more time to produce an informed, coordinated response to the Local Plan publication consultation, before it is submitted to a government inspector.

Currently there are two green belt sites in Bold that have been allocated for housing in the Local Plan.

Between them, the plan proposes to accommodate the development of more than 3,500 homes, although it is proposed that around 3,000 of these will be delivered after 2035.

The impact these additional homes will have on the green belt and the local infrastructure has caused grave concerns for residents, and this has inevitably turned to ill-will towards the Labour-run council.

There has also been a feeling among residents that the parish council did not do all they could to try and voice any concerns about the Local Plan.

So following a call to action in March, eight independent candidates – which included former Premier League referee Chris Foy – decided to take a stand.

Coun Hughes said: “We decided to stand for parish council as we felt the community here were having their genuine concerns for the area ignored.

“Whilst the parish council has done some great work for the area in the past, many people felt that the proposal to remove large areas of green belt in the parish had not been challenged and the plan is not a solution that encourages growth and re-generation in the town.

“The green spaces and wildlife we still have in St Helens are a precious resource for the health and wellbeing of our communities from a once heavily-polluted and industrialised town.”

Now they have been elected to Bold Parish Council, Coun Hughes said the independents will continue the fight for the green belt and work with the community to tackle local issues.

“We have some fantastic community groups in the parish and we will work closely with these to help them thrive,” Coun Hughes said.

“We would like to thank the people of Bold and Clock Face for their help and ongoing support with regards to local issues,.

“What we have achieved in such a short space of time is testament to the people of the area and we promise not to let them down.”

During the past two months, the Bold and Clock Face Action Group turned to other areas that have been campaigning against green belt development. Among those was Rainhill.

In the 2018 local elections, independent candidate James Tasker caused a massive upset when he won Rainhill by a landslide, ousting Labour’s Stephen Glover.

This year another independent, Donna Greaves, was elected onto St Helens Council to represent Rainhill.

And while Coun Greaves’ victory signalled that last year’s result was no fluke, it was perhaps the parish council election results that were more extraordinary.

Independents plotted a full takeover of the parish council, including Coun Greaves and Coun Tasker, and were successful in doing so.

Calling themselves Rainhill Independents, all 14 candidates made it on to the council, pushing aside outgoing St Helens Council leader Derek Long, former council leader Barrie Grunewald and former Labour chief whip, Joe De’Asha.

Coun Greaves said: “It’s more than 40 years since Rainhill had its last female borough councillor, so that alone was history in the making, but a full clean sweep of all 14 parish council positions being replaced by 14 independent candidates is just amazing.

“We are a dedicated team of people with different backgrounds and life experiences from across Rainhill and its boundaries, who came together with a common desire to make Rainhill an even better place to live and to support our whole community.

“It’s about engagement, transparency and accountability, something which was started by independent councillor James Tasker last year, that we intend to follow as parish councillors.”

Rainhill Independents are not currently a registered political party, but Coun Tasker said they intend to register as a political group within St Helens Council.

Up until now Coun Tasker has operated solo within the town hall, while siding with opposition councillors on certain issues, such as when he voted against the Local Plan in December.

Twelve months on from being elected, Coun Tasker said his goal remains the same.

“My election promise last May was simple – I promised to fight against any unnecessary green belt development, and I promised to stand up for the people of Rainhill and to listen to them,” Coun Tasker said.

“Since then I have spoken out passionately against green belt development and in December I voted against the revised Local Plan.

“During the last 12 months I’ve been contacted by over 200 Rainhill residents with issues ranging from litter and traffic, right up to needing help finding social housing. I make sure that I’m always here for residents.”

An ex-Labour member, Coun Tasker believes Labour support has waned in Rainhill because a large proportion of residents do not feel they are being listened to.

“I make sure that I’m always here for residents,” Coun Tasker said.

“People in St Helens want councillors who they can talk to and who will listen to what they have to say.

“People want to know that there’s someone in their corner fighting for them.

“This is why I believe Labour have suffered in the local elections over the last 12 months.

“People in St Helens don’t believe that their concerns are being listened to or taken seriously by our Labour councillors.

“The Local Plan and the green belt have proved this and I think that for many this was the final straw.”

As well as losing Bold and Rainhill at the local elections, Labour lost Haydock to the Greens and Newton to the Liberal Democrats.

Shortly after being re-elected to Windle, Labour’s David Baines called this a “wake-up call” for the party.

Since then it has been revealed that Coun Baines will become the new leader of St Helens Council, with the current leader stepping down.

Reflecting on the election losses Labour and the Tories suffered across the country, Coun Baines said: “Nationally I think there is a trend that people are losing a bit of faith with the main parties. Brexit is obviously something to do with that.

“There’s a fatigue with elections and politics in general. The last four years there’s been that many elections.

“I think people generally have got a bit of fatigue with that and the sort of traditional way of doing things.”

While the Local Plan has been the driving force behind the independent movement in Rainhill, Coun Baines said, he believes they were also able to capitalise on a general feeling of discontent towards Labour.

“The independents have definitely tapped into something,” Coun Baines said.

“Rainhill is a proud village. It’s a tight community. I used to work in Rainhill.

“My in-laws live in Rainhill, that’s where my wife’s from so I know Rainhill is its own little world almost.

“It’s a great place, a proud community, a lot of heritage. We’ve got the Rainhill Trials commemorations coming up shortly.

“It’s a fantastic place and we need to make sure it gets the attention it deserves and the credit it deserves.”

Part of what makes St Helens so strong, Coun Baines argues, is the many communities who contribute to the borough.

And the incoming St Helens Council leader insisted that Labour are “committed” to the entire borough and will not leave any communities behind as it moves forward.

For Coun Tasker, Labour simply need to get “back to basics”.

“You can only push people so far before they stand up and that is what is happening now, with the rise of the Independents,” Coun Tasker said.

“In my opinion too many Labour councillors are more interested in fighting for power within the town hall rather than fighting for their communities.

“Labour need to go back to basics. Then need to listen to the people they represent, stand up for them and try and help resolve their issues.”