Nervous wait to find out which way the wind will blow in Wadebridge
Could the rise of UKIP and the independents in Cornwall create a perfect storm to blow the Tories and the Lib Dems off course in
their bid to take County Hall? Is the Duchy about to elect a ‘rainbow’ coalition of all the parties in county council elections?
Phil Goodwin rode his battle bike into Wadebridge to look at the independent challenge – one opposing a disgraced councillor looking to stage an unlikely return and another threatening to unseat many people’s idea of the likely leader come Friday evening.
Cornwall's independent nature has long been reflected in its local politics.
Groups not aligned with the major political parties have controlled the county council in the 1970s and 1980s.
The current Conservative-Independent coalition, which has been in charge since a £1 billion-budget unitary authority with 22,000 staff was created in 2009, has had a turbulent year.
Leader Alec Robertson was toppled by an Independent-led coup, followed by a mass walkout by the cabinet, then by the defection, resignation and sacking of a number of senior Tories.
For those looking for an alternative to the three main parties this time, there are plenty of options: 217 of the 479 candidates are Independent, Liberal, UKIP, Greens or from Cornish nationalist party Mebyon Kernow.
If UKIP does take seats from the Tories, as they fear, and there is another strong showing from the independents, Cornwall could be in for a truly non-aligned administration.
Such is the nervousness among the Liberal Democrats, who lost power four years ago, that North Cornwall MP Dan Rogerson has taken the unusual step of writing to all postal voters in his constituency warning of wasteful Tories and "Conservative-minded" Independents.
Lib Dem chief and would-be council leader Jeremy Rowe faces an Independent opponent in his St Issey and St Tudy seat, outside Wadebridge. The Conservatives have decided not to field a candidate in the ward, instead leaving former scientist Dr Emma Hambly a clear run at the Lib Dem – creating that most feared of political stand-offs for an incumbent: the two-horse race.
Dr Hambly is a conceptual artist with a PhD in marine micro-biology who opposes all new solar parks and wind farms – a stance popular at a time of huge concern in the Duchy over development of energy parks.
I took a ride into Wadebridge to check out a potentially fiery election hustings, which promised to pit the councillor who stood down after saying disabled children should be put down, Collin Brewer, and his nemesis, Sarah Maguire, who led calls for his resignation.
Over a coffee beforehand, Dr Hambly admitted she was a political novice, but said there was a need for more idealism and creativity in politics.
"I am a profound believer in the power of the individual," she adds.
"I am not and never have been a member of a political party and I don't think Cornwall Council should be a party-political issue.
"I genuinely believe in localism – if everybody stands up for what is the best for the people they are representing then that will produce the best outcomes."
The St Kew parish councillor has prepared a manifesto, covering affordable housing, employment and waste. But it is in the field of renewable energy where her desire to restrain visually overbearing developments could exploit anger over controversial local schemes, such as a solar farm near the Royal Cornwall Showground and the many current local wind turbine applications.
"Cornwall Council set a target for renewable energy by 2020 which we have already exceeded by 160%, when considering the installed and permitted schemes," she claims.
"It is time for us to stop and take stock – we have time to begin to work out a county-wide strategy of how we go about sustainably satisfying our future energy needs."
On the subject of Independents, Jeremy Rowe is sceptical about how many are truly free of influence from the large parties. He suggests the Tories' decision not to oppose him but to sign nomination papers and campaign for Dr Hambly shows that many Independents have the "machinery of the Conservative Party behind them".
"The issue with Independents always seems attractive but you never quite know what you are going to get – with the Tories and the Lib Dems you know what they stand for," he says. "At County Hall the Independents organise as a group, elect a leader and vote as a bloc."
He adds: "I think because of the changing demographic – as more people move to Cornwall from elsewhere – the Independent tradition will continue to diminish."
Mr Rowe is hopeful his party can secure the most seats, though whether they are able to govern alone, or will need the support of Independents, remains to be seen. Other likely results he envisages include a "rainbow coalition" of all the parties or the Independents trying to lead the council, with Conservative support.
On renewable energy, Mr Rowe says he agrees with much of what Dr Hambly says, though he cautions against prejudicing future planning decisions. "There is a danger that by opposing all wind turbines you won't stop any," he says, adding: "Of course we would like to win a majority and do all the things in our manifesto, but I think whatever the result there is an appetite for the different groups to work together more than they have done over the past four years."
At the hustings in Wade-bridge Town Hall, a crowd of around 100 gathers to quiz around a dozen parish and county hopefuls. Disappointingly, Collin Brewer, the councillor who quit after saying disabled children should be "put down" because they cost the authority too much money before deciding to stand again, decides not to face the public.
But a poll of some of the audience revealed strong support for the politician, who has represented the community for more than 20 years.
One man, who did not wish to be named, said Mr Brewer should not be punished for one error in more than two decades.
"The man made an obvious mistake and apologised to the television, the radio and the council – what more is he supposed to do," he adds.
"I am the wrong side of the river to vote for him, but Wadebridge is a very forgiving town and he has got support – just look at his track record, which has been excellent."
Another man, who also wished to remain anonymous, said he had "not seen much to impress" at the meeting.
"It is important to vote, though I have heard nothing but hot air tonight," he said.
"Collin Brewer is very experienced and well respected – he made a very serious mistake but we have all said things we would rather have not done. If I were in that ward I would vote for him."
Sarah Maguire, the woman who led the campaign for Mr Brewer to give up his seat and is now standing against him in Wadebridge East, seems not to be making anything of the row.
A mother who teaches sign language, she wants to shake up a council she sees as "male and of a certain age".
"Maybe we need to put some younger people on Cornwall Council who will still be working in 30 years' time," she suggests.
Scott Mann, the Conservative councillor for Wadebridge West, who is also set to stand as an MP in the next general election, says the "East" seat is "wide open".
"I have seen it before with two Independents on the ballot paper – sometimes the vote can fracture," he adds. "It is not just an election about politics but about personality – we will see what the people of Wadebride want to do."
Stephen Frankel, of the Wadebridge Renewable Energy Network (WREN), which partly organised the hustings, believes Thursday's vote is "extremely important".
"The scale of what the council can achieve is considerable," he says.
"There is an issue around how low-carbon technologies operate that has been rather politicised in an odd way. People can be misled to the extent that fuel bills can be affected by wind farms for political purposes and most people don't know that the impact on the bill is trivial."
Phil' Battle Bike takes the strain
Inspired by the idea of the political battle bus, reporter Phil Goodwin has been riding his ‘battle bike’ around Westcountry towns in the run up to the local elections on May 2.
Using pure pedal power, on a Land Rover bike supplied by Dartmoor Cycles of Tavistock, he has been discovering local opinion and getting a flavour of the views and issues of voters in each place across the region.