During Eastleigh Borough Local elections I have encountered what I believe to be unfairness in the campaign run by the Eastleigh Lib Dems. Keith House, the leader of the council and Lib Dem Party has held onto power for 25 years and I believe is now going to additional lengths to maintain that power using his lengthy council leadership position over other parties.
I help run a local Facebook group (16k people) and we recently received pressure to approve a post which we initially declined as we considered it unfair given our local election canvassing rules of one canvassing post per candidate. To try and make sure the facebook group is as fair as possible I looked for election rules to follow, and it seems the LGA have advice on this. Reading this guidance, I see the Eastleigh Lib Dem group seem to breach almost every line of advice from the LGA.
The advice from the LGA on Purdah is below:
These guidelines suggest that:
What you shouldn’t do
- Produce publicity on matters which are politically controversial
- Make references to individual politicians or groups in press releases
- Arrange proactive media or events involving candidates
- Issue photographs which include candidates
- Supply council photographs or other materials to councillors or political group staff unless you have verified that they will not be used for campaigning purposes
- Continue hosting third party blogs or e-communications
- Help with national political visits, as this would involve using public money to support a particular candidate or party. These should be organised by political parties with no cost or resource implications for the council.
In addition “Ultimately, you must always be guided by the principle of fairness. It is crucial that any decision you take would be seen as fair and reasonably the public [sic] and those standing for office”
Recently there was an issue with illegal felling of woodland (Topic covered in detail here: https://eastleigh.online/t/ancient-woodland-trees-protected-by-a-tpo-destroyed-in-horton-heath/872). Cllr Michelle Marsh did a great job with keeping the community up to date on this issue with seemingly no political motive. No other political parties or independents sought to make this issue political.
Later, once it was discovered to be a hot topic locally Cllr Keith House (candidate and council leader) promoted Cllr Nick Couldrey (candidate in the ward) as front photo-op man for this, and then used it as an opportunity for electioneering and to gain wider publicity for Nick Couldrey at election time. Cllr Michelle Marsh who was initially the front face of this story, was then pushed back to advertise Nick Couldreys Facebook page.
This was an active council issue in which the council leader made reference to individual politicians and arranged a proactive media event involving candidates, and issued photographs which included candidates to the local social media, and newspaper.
The post was shared across the borough, either by Lib Dem candidates up for re-election (Margaret Winstanley), or Lib Dem Party members. The post was also shared on the ‘Hedge End Councillors News’ page, a page run by Cllr Keith House.
Cllr Nick Couldrey then paid to promote the story on his Facebook page, electioneering on the back of this council issue.
Lib Dem party members then shared pictures of candidates up for election with the daily echo: https://www.dailyecho.co.uk/news/19227919.outrage-horton-heath-woodland-torn-burnt/
I believe this is unfair to other candidates as they would not have had the same airtime, or access to council resources to publicise off the back of this issue. The echo article also did not provide other candidates the same opportunity.
The house building at once Horton Heath has been a divisive topic (more background here: Horton Hearth Development for 2,500 new Homes!)
On the 14th April during the pre-election period, council leader Cllr Keith House (lib dem candidate) wrote to Nick Couldrey (lib dem candidate) to publicly thank him for the work in what was clearly a canvassing stunt in an attempt to win over voters. This letter was posted from an electioneering page, and shared in many groups across the Borough. This clearly produces publicity on matters which are politically controversial.
Our council leader again shares a social media letter to our MP producing publicity on a controversial issue. The background to this issue is a little more misleading than Cllr Keith House mentions in his letter. The council is long overdue adopting a local plan and so development plans have not “been clear for 20 years”, and so development has been happening ad-hocly around the Borough and there is strong resistance to the current local plan. The council have incorrectly erected signposts which suggested new development is about to begin. https://www.dailyecho.co.uk/news/19241587.mysterious-road-signs-spark-fears-new-eastleigh-housing-scheme/
The council responded to the MP on an issue via letter, but then shared this controversial issue across all social media channels suggesting ‘fake news’. This letter fails to apologise for Eastleigh Borough Council’s own errors which led the public to believe this was happening and instead points the finger elsewhere.
This group is home to 8,000+ residents, and is administered by Cllr Keith House in his own ward where he is standing for re-election. This is not listed on his register of interests (Register of interests for Councillor Keith House - Meetings, agendas and minutes - Eastleigh Borough Council), but as you can imagine being able to steer the conversation of 8,000 residents proves a significant advantage during election time and could be a clear conflict of interests. This is surely continuing on hosting third party blogs or e-communications.
I raised the above issues with Eastleigh Borough Council Chief Executive Nick Tustain and returning officer Richard Ward, in the hope they can improve my confidence level that Eastleigh Borough Council is operating fairly. I received the following response:
On the 27th April, the council has produced publicity on matters which are politically controversial and released an update on the local plan. This looks specifically designed to win votes for the local Lib Dems, who risk losing votes due to excessive recent house building. This was then shared in all local groups;
The update reads:
The Council will be considering the latest Local Plan report in May 2021 that will provide details of the Inspector’s modifications to the Local Plan and confirms that the Council is on track to provide sufficient housing for the majority of the local plan period, and that there is no requirement to allocate any new land for housing developments in this Local Plan.
Following the Local Plan hearings in November 2019 - January 2020 the Inspector wrote to the Council in April 2020 stating:
- that the Strategic Growth Option (including 5,300 new homes) should be deleted, (this will leave some shortfall in housing supply during the last 4 or 5 years of the plan period to 2036)
- that the remaining housing sites in the plan would be sufficient to meet the need and requirement for housing for the majority of the plan period,
- that there are significant advantages to having an adopted plan in place, and that the next review of the Local Plan can address this long term shortfall.
In May 2020 the Inspector completed a list of action points that included a detailed list of the areas where she considered the Local Plan should be modified. The Inspector has not indicated, at any time, that she intends to modify the plan to allocate any new land for housing (either in the south of Bishopstoke / Allington area or anywhere else in the Borough) and explicitly states that the longer term housing shortfall can be picked up in the next review of the Plan. There are therefore no proposed modifications to allocate any new land for housing in this Local Plan.
The Council is preparing the detailed wording for the Inspector’s proposed modifications and these will be considered by Full Council on 27 May 2021. The modifications will then be subject to public consultation for 6 weeks. The Inspector will consider any representations received on these proposed modifications before finalising her report and modifications. The Council can then proceed to adopt the plan, incorporating the Inspectors modifications.
The Inspector’s letter of 1 April 2020 (ED71) and action points of 18 May 2020 (ED72) can be found on our examination webpages.
Considering the inspector wrote to the council in April 2020, why the timing of this press release now, a whole year later?
I struggle to see where the council ends and the Eastleigh Lib Dem team begin. This is an alliance forged over the past 25 years. Can I truly believe that Eastleigh Borough Council staff members are non biased in their responses to my complaint?
It seems clear to me that I cannot trust this council, who in my opinion is breaking LGA guidance and Purdah rules and using its overwhelming power to increase its media control and use council issues to promote its own Lib Dem party members during election time.
I’m sharing this now because I have no idea where to go next. As per my response above from Eastleigh Borough Council they referred me to the electoral commission. The electoral commission refers these kind of issues to my “local authority”, which I have already done - it’s Eastleigh Borough Council!?