Around England, election campaigns are in full swing. From Cornwall to Northumberland, Kent to Cumbria, campaigners are hard at work in preparation for the 2 May elections.
You can be excused for not having noticed, since there's not exactly been a media deluge, in part no doubt because there are no comparable elections in London, greatly diminishing national media interest (and what coverage there is tends to be along the lines of "what does this mean for national politics?"), and of course there has been another big political story in the headlines.
But voters on 2 May will be making important choices about the direction of local communities and entire counties in the next four years; county and unitary councils have a big influences on social services, in housing and planning, transport and waste management, education and more, and seats on district and town councils, which operate more locally, are also up for election.
For a political party leader, this means travel - and manifesto launches. The Green Party is a decentralised party with local autonomy, so each local party writes their own manifesto, but what I'm finding as I travel around the country is that while there are sometimes very specific local issues, the same big four spring up again and again.
The first is a broad category of defending local services and institutions, and doing whatever's possible to protect the vulnerable against central government cuts. Whether it's speaking for a ban on evictions for households hit by the bedroom tax, resisting the privatisation of local service provision, from care homes to rubbish collection, or seeking to protect children's services and arts institutions, Greens are there.
A big focus in many campaigns is fighting for the living wage for council staff and contractors - and important method of setting a benchmark for an area, and also demonstrating the business case for the living wage, with improved productivity, reduced staff turnover and reduced illness among staff.
Another of the key issues is transport: in some areas local bus services are absolutely critical, whether they're serving rural villages or new housing developments. In other areas train services are at the centre of campaigns - the demand, and the need, is clearly there for improved services and affordable tickets. Road safety is another key area - 40mph limits for local rural roads and 20mph limits, whether outside schools or more broadly where communities can enjoy enormous benefits from the calmer, safer streets created
A third area that comes up again and again is planning - particularly protecting the green belt -- and also the future of local economies. Far too often, communities have found themselves facing faux "consultations" - questions along the lines "do you want to build in area A, B or C?", without the "none of the above" option being offered. We do need to provide lots of new housing in Britain (while remembering that there are now more bedrooms per person in Britain than ever before and hundreds of thousands of empty homes), but we need to start with brownfield sites, conversions, and ensure that developments are not strung-out car-dependent suburbs, but sensibly located with access to public transport, schools, doctors and jobs.
And councils need to be looking to build strong local economies, with manufacturing and food production networks, not rely on the failed 20th Century model of globalisation and export-led growth. Far too often airports are seen as a fountain of money, and new roads as some kind of panacea, even when these theories of development have been comprehensively discredited. And instead of protecting high streets, with their small shops and businesses, far too many councils regard some new supermarket or chain as a retail gold, swallowing wholesale their job creation claims, without considering the really important figure - net jobs: how many jobs will be lost as well as gained?
The final big issue - fixed the right way in a few lucky places - but still running hot from Cornwall northwards, is the issue of incinerators, or more broadly waste management. The arguments against incinerators often focus on issues of pollution and safety, but even for those who would like to discard those, there's the unanswerable economic case - that locking councils into 25-year or longer contracts to supply large quantities of waste, when the levels are already falling, is a huge economic risk. And ignoring the jobs and industries that can be created by recycling would be a huge missed opportunity.
These are above all local elections - and so while national political journalists will be trying to draw national lessons from the overall results, often local factors will be key. I noticed that strong dissatisfaction with the behaviour current local councils in Cornwall and Essex, to name just two, are likely to strongly influence voters.
A notable development has been increasing links between local independent candidates and Green parties. This is particularly notable in Norfolk, where the trend has been endorsed by former Independent MP Martin Bell and local former Labour MP Ian Gibson, but is a trend than can also be seen more widely.
Certainly, overall in the Green Party we're confident of growing our number of councillors around the country, with our record number of candidates - there's a strong desire for change, for a new political direction, and an understanding that we need to create strong local economies that provide jobs people can build a life on, to improve the quality of life for all, but particularly the poorest, and to live within the limits of the one planet that's all we have.
A practical note: Wednesday, 17 April, is the last day to register to vote and to apply for a new postal vote. Proxy votes are available until 24 April.
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