It’s been a month since UK citizens learned a general election would take place on December 12.
And for most of that time, local authorities have been bound by special rules which govern what they can and can’t do.
Commonly known as purdah, the pre-election period began at midnight on November 6 and continues until polling day.
During that period, councils cannot make any decisions, publish any material or hold any events which could influence or prejudice the outcome of the election.
This includes announcing any new spending, launching new strategies or publishing any form of new policy which had not been agreed before the purdah period began.
In short, if a “reasonable” person could conclude public money was being spent to influence the outcome of the election through a given action, then a council cannot do said action.
So what, if anything, has been affected by the election in the Bristol area?
Plenty, as it turns out.
From Bristol Airport’s expansion to the plans for Western Harbour – the General Election has seen a number of big projects delayed in and around Bristol.
Bristol Live has examined pre-election activity in Bristol, North Somerset and South Gloucestershire.
Below is a round-up of the decisions, meetings, events, reports and plans which have been cancelled, postponed or otherwise affected by the general election.
Bristol Airport expansion
(Image: Bristol Airport)
A major planning decision which has been delayed by the election is on the expansion of Bristol Airport .
The firm submitted proposals last December to boost passenger numbers to 12 million a year by the mid-2020s, expand its car parking and improve the on-site infrastructure.
A decision had been expected after the summer but North Somerset Council has now confirmed it will not happen until the new year.
The application has been met with 3,887 objections and 1,810 letters of support.
Bristol’s Western Harbour proposals
In Bristol, the Clifton, Hotwells and Harbourside Labour Party postponed a community meeting about the council’s Western Harbour proposals because of election spending rules.
Bristol Mayor Marvin Rees had been expected at the meeting on November 13 to speak to local residents about the proposals to radically change the Cumberland Basin.
But the meeting was pushed back to the New Year after Labour Parliamentary Candidate for Bristol West, Thangam Debbonaire, pointed out on Facebook: “During a General Election campaign Labour rules specify no meetings as the cost has implications for election expenses.”
Regional plan for housing and jobs
The four West of England authorities are unable to move forward with their joint spatial plan because of the election.
Planning inspectors urged them to take the 20-year strategy to build 105,000 houses across the region back to the drawing board , but are yet to give a detailed response.
The delay was a factor when plans for 450 homes in Nailsea were allowed on appeal.
North Somerset Council had argued the development was premature, but inspector Dominic Young said: “Such were the gravity of the examining inspectors’ concerns that it has been strongly recommended that the most appropriate way forward would be to withdraw the [JSP] from examination.
“It is quite clear on any fair-minded reading of the letters that the emerging JSP has, for the time being, hit the proverbial buffers and will not proceed in its current form.
“To contend that a development might impinge upon something that might happen in the future seems to me to be a particularly weak basis for decision taking when there is so much uncertainty over those future considerations.”
Plan to improve Bristol’s SEND offer
The general election has had an indirect but important impact on Bristol City Council’s efforts to improve its offer for children with special needs and disabilities (SEND).
The council has admitted it is failing local children with SEND and was due to come up with an action plan to improve its services in October .
But the plan has been delayed while the council waits for the release of the findings of a joint inspection of its SEND services by Ofsted and the Care Quality Commission (CQC).
The watchdog report was due mid November but is among many Ofsted is holding onto until after the general election.
Scrutiny of Bristol’s budget proposals
The ability of councillors to scrutinise Bristol City Council’s budget proposals could also be affected by Ofsted withholding the watchdogs’ SEND report until after the election.
Bristol City Council was due to hold an “evidence” day to gather information about its SEND services on December 2.
But the watchdog report forms an important part of that evidence so the event will not take place until February 3.
Councillor Clive Stevens said the delay will make it more difficult for councillors to scrutinise the Labour-led administration’s budget proposals for next year.
The information gathered on the evidence day would feed into the budget scrutiny process, the member of the resources scrutiny commission said.
Being unable to see the Ofsted report and hold the evidence day until February 3 diminished the commission’s ability to “hold the regime” to account over its budget proposals for education, he said.
“If we can’t meet and challenge things during their formation, all we can do is whinge about it which is not really value-added,” he said. “We want to make a difference.”
North Somerset Council budget consultation
North Somerset Council was due to consult early on its budget proposals, as part of the new executive’s commitment to transparency.
The plans will not go before councillors until they meet in January, but the papers are set to be published on December 13, the day after the election.
However, guidance from the Local Government Association specifically states local authorities “are allowed to continue to discharge normal council business (including budget consultations or determining planning applications, even if they are controversial)”.
Landlord’s consent for skate park in Portishead
North Somerset Council chiefs have delayed a decision over a new skate park at Portishead Lake Grounds until after the election.
As landlords, the council must give its consent for Portishead Wheels and Skate Park (WASP) to put a skate park on land at the rear of the boathouse.
A decision on the application, recommended for approval, was due to be taken by the council executive on December 4 but will now be made on January 7.
The region’s long-term healthcare plan
Bristol, North Somerset and South Gloucestershire clinical commissioning group’s five-year plan has been completed but must remain under wraps until after the election.
The CCG’s Bristol area director Justine Rawlings told the city’s health & wellbeing board on Wednesday (November 27): “In the NHS, we have submitted our long-term plan but because of purdah we are not able to release it.
“It doesn’t mean the work stops.”
A CCG spokesman said: “All areas of the country are required to pull together local long-term plans.
“These are then submitted to NHS England.
“Our local long-term plan is called the ‘Healthier Together Five Year Plan 2019-24’ and is being developed by the Healthier Together Partnership, which includes all local NHS organisations and councils in Bristol, North Somerset and South Gloucestershire.
“It sets out the Bristol, North Somerset and South Gloucestershire health and care priorities for the coming years, building on existing work to provide improved services for local people.
“Healthier Together is the Bristol, North Somerset and South Gloucestershire Sustainability and Transformation Partnership. Further information is available at bnssghealthiertogether.org.uk ”
West of England Combined Authority (Weca)
The following meetings of Weca, which comprises Bristol City, South Gloucestershire and Bath & North East Somerset councils, have been cancelled because of purdah:
- Audit Committee on November 25.
- Overview and scrutiny committee on December 4.
- The main Weca committee, which makes the major investment decisions, and the West of England Joint Committee, which also includes North Somerset Council, on December 6. The combined authority says the agenda items for these two meetings had yet to be decided before they were cancelled.
- In addition, the West of England Local Enterprise Partnership Board, which meets behind closed doors and is not a decision-making body, cancelled its November 29 meeting.
South Gloucestershire Council business
These public meetings have been cancelled during the purdah period:
- Strategic sites delivery committee on November 14.
- Health scrutiny committee on November 20.
- Regulatory committee on November 21.
- Spatial planning committee on December 2.
- Scrutiny commission on December 4.
- Public rights of way and commons registration sub-committee December 5.
- Full council on December 11. The council says the items from that meeting will roll over to the February agenda, although it adds there were no major decisions set to be debated.
- Four community engagement forums were also postponed.
Bristol City Council meetings
Bristol City Council has postponed, cancelled or altered five public meetings because of purdah.
Another two were postponed for reasons unrelated to the general election, according to a council spokesman.
The meetings that have been or will be affected by purdah are:
- member forum on November 12 – cancelled
- full council on November 12 – public forum rules changed; “golden” and “silver” motions postponed
- member forum on December 10 – postponed to December 17
- full council on December 10 – postponed until December 17
- resources scrutiny commission on December 12 – postponed to December 18.
Member forum is an opportunity for councillors to submit questions and statements to the elected mayor before full council.
Public forum allows residents to submit questions and statements during full council.
The rules of the public forum held during full council on November 12 were controversially altered by Bristol lord mayor Jos Clark, who cited “parliamentary pre-election protocol”.
Members of the public were able to submit written questions and make verbal statements, but were promised written instead of verbal answer and were not allowed to ask supplementary questions.
But the move triggered claims by citizens they were being denied their “democratic right to ask questions”.
One “golden” and up to two “silver” motions are usually debated and voted on at each full council meeting, depending on the time available.
As a result of their postponement, December’s full council will see two golden and one silver motion on the agenda instead, meaning the loss of a silver motion.
What does the Local Government Association say?
Local Government Association guidelines suggest councils modify their publications and some activity during purdah, which they describe as a period of “heightened sensitivity”.
“The ordinary functions of councils can continue, but some restrictions do apply, by law,” the guidelines state.
The pre-election restrictions are governed by the Local Government Act, which essentially bans councils from publishing “any material which, in whole or in part, appears to be designed to affect public support for a political party”.
Councils are allowed to continue to discharge normal council business, including budget consultations or determining planning applications, even if they are controversial.
For example, Bristol City Council is still continuing to consult on its proposals for council tax for the 2020/21 year.
But a code of recommended practice advises them to consider suspending the hosting of third party material or closing public forums if these are likely to breach the codes of practice, and to consider carefully whether to:
- develop new policies or hold events (including some meetings) featuring elected officials
- continue to run local campaigns on controversial matters
- launch any new consultations.
“Ultimately, you must always be guided by the principle of fairness,” the code states. “It is crucial that any decision you take would be seen as fair and reasonable by the public and those standing for office.”
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