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Government gives green light to May 2021 local elections

The May 2021 local elections are to go ahead, the Minister of State for the Constitution and Devolution in the Cabinet Office has confirmed.

Writing in the introduction of the Cabinet Office’s May 2021 polls delivery plan, which was published today (5 February), Chloe Smith said Returning Officers, the government and their partners had made extensive preparations to be able to hold these polls on 6 May 2021 in a way that minimised the risk of spreading the coronavirus.

Ms Smith said: “Our public health response – not least the vaccination programme, which we plan will have reached all nine priority cohorts by May – means that we can commit to go ahead with these polls with confidence. The government is working with the Electoral Commission to ensure that we are setting out clearly how social distancing and other rules apply specifically to all aspects of the polls. We will maintain the choice for voters between in person and absent voting (using a postal or proxy vote).”

The minister added: “The United Kingdom has a world-class electoral system, delivered in each area by the statutorily independent Returning Officer. We have the utmost confidence in the ability of the Returning Officers to run these polls in a way that meets the highest standards of both public safety and democratic integrity.”

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She acknowledged that there would be challenges – “for example, finding alternative polling station and count locations when the normal locations are unavailable, and additional staff to support public health measures like social distancing”.

Additional funding had been allocated to support local authorities with COVID-19 pressures and ministers had said that election costs were a priority for this funding, Ms Smith noted.

“There will be an estimated £92m of government grant funding that will be provided to local authorities for the elections; of this, £31m is an uplift to directly address costs associated with making the elections COVID-19 secure,” she added.

“This package of funding will support Returning Officers to secure venues and staffing and run COVID-19 secure elections. The Barnett formula will apply, meaning that our partners in the Welsh and Scottish Governments will also receive additional funding.”

Ms Smith said the government was also supporting the Census, which would be going ahead this spring in a COVID-secure way.

The Minister added: “Everyone who feels comfortable going to a supermarket or a post office should also feel confident attending a polling station in May. We encourage anybody who is shielding, or who would prefer not to attend a polling station, to apply for a postal or proxy vote ahead of the polls."

Responding to the Government announcement, Cllr James Jamieson, Chairman of the Local Government Association, said: “Local elections play a crucial role in our nation’s democracy. This year’s will see everyone in England having a ballot of some kind, with many places having multiple ballots taking place at once – this is unprecedented. Councils have been working hard to put preparations in place to deliver these with their usual efficiency.

“It is good that the Government has set out this action plan to help guide local planning for these elections. We are pleased the Government will provide some extra funding to councils to ensure COVID-19 secure measures can be implemented for voters, council election teams and the army of volunteers in polling stations and count venues.”

Cllr Jamieson added: “The scale and cost of these vital extra measures to ensure everyone’s safe involvement in the elections and the counting of votes are now being assessed by councils. The level of extra government financial support will need to be kept under review as the real-world costs and implications are calculated. 

“Councillors make a huge difference to the quality of life of local people and how local issues are dealt with. It is vital that candidates have the ability to run campaigns so residents can make informed decisions about who they want to represent them. We look forward to seeing further details from government on this. We also want to explore with the Government how all candidates can best set out their case for election to voters as national restrictions are lifted.”

The LGA said it was also calling for the Government to:

  • Ensure there is clear specific public health guidance for elections to guide decision-making and support officers to make decisions in this difficult context, for example by providing indemnity for returning officers.
  • Add core election staff to the priority list for the next phase of the COVID-19 vaccine rollout and extend testing to core electoral staff in the run up to the elections.
  • Recognise that the counting of votes will take considerably longer than normal and clarify how counting agents will be able to undertake their duties in a safe way given social distancing rules. Relaxing the deadline for newly elected councillors to take up office to allow the count to be conducted safely. Clarity is also needed on the use of schools as polling stations.

Jonathan Carr-West, Chief Executive of the LGIU thinktank, said: “Following today’s announcement from the Cabinet Office that local elections will go ahead as planned on 6 May 2021, we are pleased to hear that a decision has finally been made by the Government. Clarity is the most important thing and the sector has been begging for this.

“While local government has serious concerns about taking these elections forward (as highlighted in our Fair, Safe and Free report published last week), when they are set a challenge, they rise to the occasion. This is something we have seen from local government time and time again, up and down the country, and this will be no different.”

Mr Carr-West added: “It is good that the Government has listened to some of the concerns from the sector and made extra funding available for these elections. However, we need to look at other measures such as PPE supplies and vaccinating poll workers to ensure their safety.

“It is good that the Government is allowing emergency proxies and changing the rules around nominations (though still no detail) but the campaign around postal votes needs to start today. And, some key logistical problems still remain – all the money in the world can’t conjure up venues that aren’t there or staff that don’t exist.

“Maybe it would have been better to listen to the sector’s view in the first place and postpone these elections but the most important thing is clarity and at least we have that now.”

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