It might look like it, but the election isn’t over. Last Thursday, the Labour vote went up, the Tory and Lib Dem vote went down, and far-right UKIP came from nowhere to steal some shock successes. But only 54 of 55 chairs in County Hall have been filled. In Coker, South Somerset, the sudden death of a candidate has postponed the election until Thursday May 16th – and Labour’s Murray Shepstone, fighting to win, is passionately campaigning on local issues the other parties are happy to ignore.
It’s fitting that Somerset Labour’s most ambitious county campaign in history will end in a ward the party hasn’t contested since 1935 – and refreshed after a week’s break after the county-wide election, the party is throwing everything it has behind the Coker campaign.
Hugely important local decisions
Somerset-born Murray Shepstone spent twenty years working for Gloucester County Council, twenty years as a National Union of Public Employees (now UNISON) branch secretary, before going on to work for a social housing provider specialising in care for the elderly. Now Deputy-Chair of South Somerset Labour Party, and an East Coker resident for six years, Murray is determined to fight the election on hugely important local decisions the Lib Dems and the Tories are trying to brush under the carpet.
Coker is a large ward – it takes in both East and West Coker, Barwick, Montacute, Norton Sub Hamdon and Haselbury Plucknett to name just a few. But all of Coker’s settlements have the potential to be hugely disrupted by Lib Dem-led South Somerset District Council’s controversial Local Plan – a plan that Murray is leading the campaign against.
Massive housing, industrial and retail development to blight the area
The Liberal’s proposals would bring a massive housing, industrial and retail development to an unspoilt part of South Somerset. But Murray is convinced it would do a lot more than just ruin the view.
“The Local Plan would be disastrous for Coker”, Murray says. “First off, the Lib Dems want to let businesses build on precious Grade 1 agricultural land – not only going directly against DEFRA recommendations, but selling off our future food security. Climate change is making it less and less sustainable to import all our food from abroad, and in the future it’s likely that we’ll have to go back to relying on local produce. We can’t do that if we don’t have any farmland left.”
“Then there’s the traffic situation. Some of the region’s main roads pass through the Coker ward, and the initial surge in construction traffic would cause enough chaos. Imagine what it would be like once the houses were built and the shops were open? It wouldn’t just cause massive tailbacks on our main highways, but totally overwhelm narrow local roads. Our villages would become rat-runs”.
“And it’ll spell the end of Yeovil Town Centre. At a time when town centre economies and smaller and independent businesses are struggling to scrape by, the Lib Dem’s plans will make it even harder for them to survive – and the Yeovil Chamber of Trade agrees with me”.
Murray is not only leading the campaign against the proposals, he’s the only Coker candidate with any involvement in the issue. It’s the Lib Dems that are behind the damaging scheme, and the Tories, as ever, are favouring profit-making land deals over the ordinary people in the line of fire.
David Laws ‘too busy’ to get involved
Local campaigners tried to contact their MP, Yeovil’s David Laws, to help them fight the District Council’s plans – it was a long shot, since Laws, a Lib Dem himself, was unlikely to go against decisions made by a Council his party runs. But the Right Honourable Minister of State for Schools and the Cabinet Office claimed he was too busy in Westminster to get involved in local planning issues.
Soon, though, Laws had contradicted himself entirely – he was found to be directly intervening in a planning decision in Dorchester. South Somerset residents have had to get used to this kind of flippant treatment from a party that has taken them for granted for decades.
Whole of Somerset watching Coker
With the whole of Somerset watching, Coker has a chance to show both the Tories and the Liberals that local issues matter, and that local residents won’t keep supporting parties that put the interests of property developers over those of the ordinary people the politicians claim to serve.
On May 16th, there are lot of parties to choose from. There’s an inexperienced Tory, an untested and little-known Lib Dem, Green and UKIP paper candidates, and Murray Shepstone – the local candidate, the candidate of experience and the candidate of action.