This weekend’s papers will be full of by-election news. The nationals will dissect the North Shropshire result until the cows in that lush green countryside come home. The Hexham Courant will devote, rightly, a deal of space to a by election there which deprives the Tories of an overall majority on Northumberland Council, whilst, if we are lucky, the Middlesbrough Gazette will give a brief paragraph on the result on the mean streets of North Ormesby, a contest that saw just 231 people vote.
Yet in a funny kind of way, that by-election had its own potential significance. Labour’s Nicky Gascoigne took the seat out of the near decade long grip of one of the many varieties of Middlesbrough independents, and it is possible that this might, just might, be a turning point back to a saner form of governance for the town.
You see, a kind of canker had, over the last five or six years, got into large parts of the body politic of the more deprived parts of Teesside with Middlesbrough joining Redcar and Cleveland and Hartlepool in a strange merry go round of the has beens, never had been and never will be shades of council chamber representation.
The correlation between this and poverty is marked. The last census stats bear this out. In 2011 the ward of North Ormesby (known locally, no-one knows why, as ‘Doggy”) had the eleventh-highest unemployment rate (12.5%) of any ward in England and Wales. For those who had jobs, the employment profile was extremely working-class: the ward was in the top 90 for ‘routine occupations’ (23.8%) and in the top 70 for those who have never worked or are long-term unemployed. The entire ward hovers very close to the bottom of the deprivation indices. Despite some spectacularly cheap house prices – in October 2017 the average house here was reported to be worth just £36,000 – a lot of residents have simply upped sticks and left for somewhere where they can get a job, leading to significant depopulation.
The last all-out election in Middlesbrough showed the rot. The 2019 election in Middlesbrough was dominated by an independent candidate, local lad turned London hedge fund millionaire and North Yorkshire mansion owner, Andy Preston, who won the town’s elected mayoralty in a landslide; and a large number of independent councillors were elected on Preston’s coat-tails.
The latest available composition before this past Thursday had 24 independent members of the council against 18 Labour and 3 Conservatives. The independents are divided into three groups (and possibly three and a half) on the council with varying degrees of, at best, lukewarm support for and virulent opposition to scandal hit Mayor Preston. It’s really quite hard for an outsider to keep track of what is going on in the Boro.
Andrew Teale on Britain Elects says:
“The North Ormesby ward was carried by the independent tide in May 2019, with independent candidate, Ashley Waters, defeating the incumbent Labour councillor by the wide margin of 70-27. Waters subsequently joined Mayor Preston’s cabinet with the regeneration portfolio, something rather important to his constituents.”
Unfortunately, he interpreted regeneration rather more widely than his brief allowed.
Andrew Teale continued:
“In January it emerged that Ashley Waters was living and working in France, where he was regenerating the ruined 18th-century Château de Lalacelle in Normandy, along with his partner and his partner’s parents. They plan to turn the château into an upmarket bed-and-breakfast. He wasn’t exactly being discreet about this: the team had posted a number of YouTube videos detailing their progress on the renovation..”
Teale concluded tellingly:
“I never expected to write the words “North Ormesby” and “French château” in the same sentence.”
Now it can be argued that 231 votes on a turnout of just 13% doesn’t say much – although to me, things are so far gone in terms of the impact of austerity on the ward, the fact that 231 people marked their crosses is heartening. The mooted independent successor to Mr Waters came second on 32 votes, a long way behind Nicky Gascoigne’s 172, with the forlorn Tory getting 20 votes and the Lib Dem – the standard bearer for the all-conquering heroes of North Shropshire – just 7.
I somehow feel a faint fresh breeze in the air – the return of normalcy to scandal and strife hit Middlesbrough Council. Perhaps.