Posted: 04.05.21 at 13:18 by George Morgan, Local Democracy Reporter
Voters in Wirral will go to the polls on Thursday in an election which could transform the borough.
Wirral Council is currently in no overall control, meaning no one party has a majority and different groups must work together to get policies through.
Labour has 32 of Wirral’s 66 councillors, meaning just two gains for the party would see it retake the majority it lost in 2019.
On the other hand, should the party lose seats the position of council leader Janette Williamson could be under threat.
Given the huge impact Thursday’s vote may have, the Local Democracy Reporting Service has taken a look at the big issues at play in Wirral’s 2021 Local Elections.
The number one issue being discussed by all parties is the greenbelt.
The Wirral Conservatives have doubled down on the claim that greenbelt land is at risk under the current Labour-led administration.
Cllr Tom Anderson, who represents Greasby, Frankby and Irby, said developers and landowners will “chance their arm” with greenbelt land until the council has a Local Plan in place.
The Tory councillor attacked Labour’s “dither and delay” and said every day a Local Plan, a document which spells out what sort of plans a council will and will not accept in principle among other things, is not in place is another day the borough’s greenbelt is at risk.
However, Labour strongly disputes this given it has developed proposals for a Local Plan which does not include any house building on greenbelt land, a proposal it will put to the council soon after the election.
The Labour leader of the council, Cllr Janette Williamson, said: “We will protect our cherished greenbelt and green spaces.
“The Conservative government has pushed for more building, but we are doing this on brownfield sites, investing in and regenerating areas in Birkenhead, providing high-quality affordable homes and business spaces, while protecting our beautiful green spaces for future generations.”
The Liberal Democrats and the Green Party have also made protecting the greenbelt a central part of their campaigns.
Lib Dem group leader Cllr Phil Gilchrist said: “We have long recognised the value of our farmland and countryside.
“Developers who challenge the council’s plan to retain those areas will be strongly resisted.”
Green Party group leader Cllr Pat Cleary said his group will “hold the council’s feet to the fire on its commitment not to build new housing in the greenbelt”.
Wirral Council has plans to regenerate much of the east of Wirral.
For decades, residents have complained that their towns have become downtrodden and left behind, and that this has been exacerbated by the pandemic.
In this campaign, Wirral’s politicians are pledging to change that.
Cllr Janette Williamson said: “Our post-COVID recovery strategy is inclusive, green and ambitious, incorporating large scale regeneration plans and local wealth building projects.
“Working with our partners such as Peel, Muse and Wirral Metropolitan College, we will deliver transformative regeneration in Birkenhead, as well as other parts of the borough including New Ferry and Liscard. We will build back and transform our town centres.
“It has been a hard year for all of our communities and we thank them for their work to make Wirral a better place for us all.”
For the Green Party, Cllr Cleary said: “The council has produced an exciting vision for the future of Birkenhead and wider East Wirral.
“Electing more Green councillors is the best way to turn that vision into reality.”
Cllr Gilchrist said: “The all-party approach to regenerate Birkenhead and avoid building on the greenbelt has widespread support.”
A spokesperson for the Conservatives said: “Labour have failed to regenerate Birkenhead, their last plan, ‘20-20 vision’ included retail and office developments and lavish multi million pound council office buildings.
“They have failed to deliver for years. It’s time for a change. A change so that we build affordable green homes, rejuvenating our high streets and enhancing our green spaces so that all residents benefit.”
The management of Wirral’s natural environment has been a source of heated debate all year in the council.
The Green Party believes the major plans coming up for towns such as Birkenhead are key to improving Wirral’s environment.
Cllr Cleary said: “Not only is it essential to protect our green spaces and prevent urban sprawl, but regenerating East Wirral as a green, attractive place that people want to live in and visit is fundamental to addressing many of our social problems.
“New and existing housing must be fit-for-purpose – building warm homes in safe, well-resourced and well connected new communities is a must.
“Investing in modern transport networks that avoid the car-driven mistakes of the past and create genuinely sustainable new communities is absolutely essential.”
Labour argue that its environmental plans show huge progress is being made.
Cllr Williamson said: “Our green agenda has already switched our buildings, schools and streetlights to 100% renewable energy and planted 21,000 trees.
“The Pollinators’ Plan will plant for our bees and butterflies, and we are protecting and restoring our Sites of Special Scientific Interest and winning more green flags for our parks than ever before.
“We will also have more and better joined up cycle routes and are working on plans to recycle far more, with plans for new green jobs and apprenticeships.”
For the Lib Dems, Cllr Gilchrist said: “We will continue our work to get the basics right, so that the way Wirral looks will improve, tackling fly tipping, road repairs and neglect wherever possible. The council can no longer do all that it did in the past.
“People are volunteering to help keep Wirral tidy and we welcome their contribution.”
The Conservatives have accused Labour of neglecting some of the borough’s natural environment in recent years.
Cllr Jeff Green, leader of the Tory group on Wirral Council, said: “We believe more should be invested in services that keep our streets clean and grass verges well maintained while planting wild flowers and pollinators.”
Wirral’s political parties believe voting for them will help to open up the council and make it listen to voters more.
The Lib Dems have made working with other parties a key part of their message.
Cllr Gilchrist said: “Liberal Democrats have worked across party divides in the interests of Wirral. We will continue to do so.
“We used our votes to end the cabinet system that undermined trust in local decision making. We have used our votes to return real discussion and decision making to committees that work for you.
“The recent revelations about Liverpool‘s system have confirmed our warnings of the danger of putting too much power in too few hands.
“Our council is now much better placed to debate spending priorities. A new pattern of working has been developed.”
The Tories said a lack of listening has led to bad decisions in the past.
Cllr Green said: “We must use the extra funding Wirral has received from the government wisely and start to rebuild council services in a way that engages the public in there design and implementation.
“Too often in the past the council has imposed its decisions on residents rather than listening and responding to communities.
“The mess at Hoylake beach or bizarre cycle routes imposed by the council without bothering to consult or listen to local residents are perhaps the most obvious examples of where an arrogant council can refuse to accept it has got things wrong.”
The Green Party pointed to policies it believes its councillors have helped to end.
Cllr Cleary said: “Wirral Council is changing for the better and Green councillors have played a huge role in delivering that change.
“The one in six Wirral residents who voted Green in 2019 have been rewarded by the ditching of hugely unpopular policies – remember the Hoylake Golf Resort, Wirral View and the hated Kingdom litter police?
“That is because Green council wins have led to a more balanced council where decisions are no longer taken by one or two individuals behind closed doors.
“Now every councillor has a say and decisions taken under the new committee system are made transparently and in public.”
For Labour, Cllr Williamson said: “Wirral Labour will continue to put the council at the heart of communities – to work with volunteers, local businesses and community groups.
“We are working to strengthen the relationships forged during COVID and recognise the way the community has pulled together during an unprecedented year.”