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London elections 2022: Spotlight on Kingston ahead of crunch poll

W

hile much of London will be a tale of the Conservatives versus Labour when voters head to the polls on May 5, it will be a different case in the southwest of the capital.

Kingston-upon-Thames is typically seen as Liberal Democrat territory, though the Conservatives have been tipped to pose a challenge this time round, making it one borough worth keeping an eye on.

Key Issues

The Liberal Democrats enjoy a strong base of support in Kingston-upon-Thames, but high levels of council tax (the highest in London) and several local issues and controversies could swing support elsewhere come May 5.

One issue that has caused significant controversy in the borough is the proposed redevelopment of a beloved swimming pool and leisure centre.

The Kingfisher leisure centre was closed in December 2019 to allow for “urgent repairs” to the building’s roof. Almost one year later and with no apparent progress, Lib Dem-run Kingston council announced plans to demolish and rebuild the facility entirely, much to the anger of many locals.

The issue led to the resignation of Lib Dem councillor Jon Tolley from the party last year amid claims that the party leadership was being “dishonest” with residents about the true cost and timescale of the plans.

The future of Seething Wells filter beds – which provided London with clean water in the 19th century – has also emerged as a hot topic in the borough. The privately-owned site has been stripped of vegetation and earmarked for development in recent years despite its designation as a site of nature conservation importance. Locals have accused the council of failing to act.

Hoping to capitalise on hyper-local issues and a newly redrawn boundary map will be the Kingston Independent Residents Group (KIRG), an independent party comprised of locals and ex-councillors of both Lib Dem and Tory persuasion. The party’s deputy leader is James Giles, who served as George Galloway’s election agent for the 2021 Batley and Spen by-election and formerly presented Russia Today’s Sputnik programme.

Details

The Conservatives enjoyed a majority on Kingston council from its formation in 1964 through to the 1980s, though they would not control the council again until 2014.

During the intervening years, the Liberal Democrats established a foothold in the borough, winning every election bar 1986, 1990 and 1998 when no party had a majority large enough to control the council.

At the last election in 2018, the Lib Dems comfortably won back control of Kingston council from the Conservatives who had won in 2014.

With the borough having strongly voted Remain in the 2016 Brexit referendum, support for the Tories crumbled in 2018, with the Lib Dems snatching 19 seats from the Conservatives and two from Labour.

Overall, the Lib Dems won 39 of the borough’s 48 council seats, increasing their share of the popular vote by more than 20 per cent compared to the previous election. The Conservatives would hold onto the remaining nine seats. Turnout in 2018 was 47.3 per cent across the borough.

Ahead of this year’s elections, Kingston was subject to a review by the Local Government Boundary Commission, which concluded that the number of councillors should remain at 48 while the number of wards would increase from 16 to 19.

In the years since the last election, the Kingston Lib Dems have been plagued by infighting which has seen the composition of the council change.

Less than 100 days after the Lib Dems claimed victory in Kingston, councillor Sharon Sumner defected to the Green Party citing a disagreement with the Lib Dem leadership over a decision to close the council’s last residential care home, and a need to act on the climate emergency. Ms Sumner would eventually resign from the council entirely in early 2022 amid claims she was “bullied into silence” by the council leadership. Her seat will remain vacant until local elections take place.

In March 2020, just days before the country would enter the first lockdown due to the Covid-19 pandemic, council leader Liz Green was ousted by her own party, having led the Lib Dem group for seven years. She was replaced by Caroline Kerr, who had won her seat on the council in 2018.

But Councillor Kerr would resign as leader just 18 months later in October 2021. The Lib Dem group would go on to elect Andreas Kirsch as the new council leader.

Lib Dem councillor Jon Tolley, owner of the iconic Banquet Records in Kingston, quit the party in September 2021 over policy disagreements with the party leadership. He would continue on the council as an independent Lib Dem, but later announced he would not be standing for re-election in May this year.

Conservative councillor Nicola Sheppard resigned from her party in March 2022 to sit as an independent on Kingston council.

Demographics

Kingston has one of the smallest populations of all the London boroughs, with an estimated population of 179,142 according to GLA data from 2020. This is an increase from 160,060 recorded in the 2011 Census.

The age profile of Kingston is similar to that of London as a whole with a relatively young population and a median average age of 36.2 years.

Around 65 per cent of the borough’s population is made up of working age adults (18 to 64 years) while under-18s represent 21.7 per cent. Over-65s make up 13.3 per cent of the population. Despite this, there are a considerable number of residents in the borough living into their 90s.

Like neighbouring boroughs in southwest London, Kingston’s population is less diverse than the rest of the capital in terms of ethnicity.

More than two-thirds of the borough’s population (69 per cent) are White, while people of Asian heritage make up 20 per cent. People of mixed heritage make up 5 per cent of Kingston’s population, while people of Black ethnicity make up 3.1 per cent.

Known as one of the “green and leafy suburbs” of London, Kingston is one of the more affluent boroughs in the capital.

The borough boasts lower than average poverty and child poverty rates of 18 and 23 per cent respectively and has an unemployment rate of 4.5 per cent.

Kingston is home, however, to the highest council tax rates in London. The average annual bill for a Band D property in Kingston is £2,097.80.

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