The first sign the the controversial Lodge Hill development of the Lodge Hill Site of Special Scientific Interest might be returning to haunt Medway Council and the Cameron Government came at around 03.20 on Friday morning, 21 November, with the success of former Conservative Councillor Chris Irvine, who won the Medway Council by-election in the Council’s Peninsula Ward for the UK Independence Party [UKIP]. After a wait of what seemed a geological age given the turn out was only around 50%, reportedly lightened by the Monster Raving Loony Party offering the assembled activists and journalists bananas, the Returning Officer announced that former Conservative MP Mark Reckless, had also won his battle to be returned for UKIP as MP to the wider Westminster constituency of Rochester and Strood.
In his victory speech Mr Reckless said “The radical tradition has found a new home in UKIP. It’s UKIP that represents the concerns of most working men and women.” adding that voters who believed in localism and standing up to the elite should join him in UKIP.
The victory of UKIP in Rochester and Strood can be put down to many factors, not least “a plague on all your houses” mood which is impacting on all the traditional Westminster political parties to varying degrees and of course to UKIP’s twin dog whistle issues of immigration and the European Union. However, the election was at least in part a referendum on the local issue of the hugely controversial Lodge Hill development. The proposed development of 5,000 houses on the Hoo Peninsula which received outline planing permission in September, was placed front and center of the UKIP campaign in the by-election and it clearly resonated with the voters. Even though the Conservatives made much of UKIP’s vulnerability over Mr Reckless’s apparent about face on the issue after his previous outspoken attack on Natural England in 2013 when the former Ministry of Defence site was declared a Site of Special Scientific Interest. UKIP’s discomfort over the stance continued almost up to the final result, with UKIP Deputy Chair Suzanne Evans telling the BBC’s Andrew Neil that the remarks had been taken out of context and Mr Reckless was merely reporting the views of Medway Council.
The success of both Councillor Irvine and Mr Reckless in winning for UKIP against their old Party will concern strategists in all political parties for various reasons, but most particularly the Conservatives. It is not just that David Cameron has lost another safe Conservative seat to a defecting MP. If UKIP is going to achieve some of its success by making an issue of unpopular building developments on Green Field sites, this is often an issue for the south and south east of England where the Conservative Party has most of its Parliamentary power base. It follows that by giving the perception that the Conservatives want to build their way to growth, relaxing the planning regime and receiving large donations from the fiscal and industrial elites of the building industry and property lobby to do it, Mr Cameron and Chancellor George Osborne may actually be putting at risk their chance of remaining the Government after next May’s General Election. After Rochester and Strood, many Conservative Councillors and perhaps not a few MP’s will be looking at what green field and green belt developments are proposed for their own council wards and parliamentary constituencies.
The Liberal Democrats will also be greatly concerned at the collapse in their vote by 95%. While it is dangerous to extrapolate too much from one result the 70% rise in the Green vote to poll at over 4% of the total of votes cast suggests some voters are now choosing to express their concerns about the environment through support for another Party which does what it says on the tin, rather than through one of the traditional Westminster big three. Meanwhile the The Department for Communities and Local Government has issued a Holding Direction, for the Lodge Hill development giving the Department more time to examine Medway Council’s decision to grant outline planning permission. The Rochester and Strood result will only add to the political pressure and the temptation to try to postpone any final decision until after the Election.
The final vote in Rochester and Strood was as follows
Mark Reckless [UK Independence Party]: 16,867 Elected
Kelly Tolhurst [Conservative]: 13,947
Naushabah Khan [Labour]: 6,713
Mike Gregory[Green]: 1,692
Geoff Juby [Liberal Democrat]: 349
Hairy Knorm Davidson [Loony] 151
Others: Stephen Goldsbrough [Ind] 69, Nick Long [PBP] 69, Jayda Fransen [Britain 1st] 56, Mike Barker [Ind] 54, Charlotte Rose [Ind] 43, Dave Osborn [Patriotic Socialist] 33, Christopher Challis [Ind] 22.