ANALYSIS  ⁄  DEMOCRACY & GOVERNANCE

2021 Exeter local elections guide

Elections for Exeter City Council, Devon County Council and the Devon & Cornwall Police and Crime Commissioner are taking place in Exeter on 6 May. Our essential election guide highlights wards and divisions to watch, changes taking place and how, when and where to vote.

LOCAL ELECTIONS   EXETER CITY COUNCIL   DEVON COUNTY COUNCIL   DEVON & CORNWALL POLICE & CRIME COMMISSIONER   COVID-19   DURYARD & ST. JAMES   ST. DAVID'S   NEWTOWN & ST. LEONARD'S   HEAVITREE   PENNSYLVANIA   ST. THOMAS   PINHOE   EXWICK   TOPSHAM   MINCINGLAKE & WHIPTON   ACCOUNTABILITY & TRANSPARENCY  

On 6 May Exeter’s electors will go to the polls to elect councillors to represent them on the city and county councils and to help choose the Devon & Cornwall Police and Crime Commissioner.

Fourteen of the city’s 39 council seats and all nine of its county council seats are being contested. As the city council and police and crime commissioner elections should have been held in May 2020 but were delayed due to the pandemic they are instead taking place at the same time as the scheduled 2021 county council elections.

On the same day Plymouth City Council will also hold elections and there will be by-elections in East Devon, South Hams, Mid Devon and Torbay. 30 parish and town council seats across the county will be contested and referendums on thirteen Neighbourhood Plans will take place.

5,000 councillors in 145 local authorities will be elected at district, borough, county borough, county and unitary level in every region of England apart from Greater London. Elections for thirteen directly-elected mayors in England, 39 police and crime commissioners in England and Wales, all 60 members of Senedd Cymru and all 129 members of the Scottish Parliament will also take place, as will those for the 25 members of the London Assembly and the Mayor of London.

The Hartlepool parliamentary by-election will also be held on 6 May, the first by-election since the Conservatives won an 87 seat majority at the 2019 parliamentary election. Labour appears to be at risk of losing the seat after holding it since 1964.

Exeter City Council elections

Exeter City Council’s 39 councillors are equally distributed across 13 wards, three in each ward. They have been arranged this way since boundary changes prompted the exceptional election of the whole council at the same time in 2016.

A third of the seats, one in each ward, is normally contested in each of three years, with county council elections then held in the fourth year. Each city councillor thus normally serves a four year term.

However the 2016 elections used the multiple non-transferable vote system to allow the council to return to electing by thirds in 2018. Voters cast up to three votes, with the candidate who received the most votes in each ward serving a four year term, the runner-up a three year term and the third place candidate a two year term.

The thirteen Exeter City Council seats occupied by the councillors who gained the most votes in the 2016 local elections are being contested this year. These councillors would have served a four year term but have ended up serving a five year term because the pandemic delayed last year’s ballot. Each new councillor will be therefore be elected for a shortened three year term to allow a subsequent return to the usual electoral cycle.

Voters in the city’s Mincinglake & Whipton ward will also elect an additional councillor, following the death of Councillor Judy Pattison. The candidate in that ward who receives the most votes will serve a three year term and the runner-up the remaining year of Councillor Pattison’s term.

2016 Exeter City Council election results map

2016 Exeter City Council election results. Source Wikipedia under Creative Commons license.

Labour is, in effect, defending twelve of the fourteen seats that are being contested this year, and the Conservatives two. However the situation is less straightforward than it seems.

Rachel Lyons, who was first elected as an Exeter city councillor more than twenty years ago, recently eschewed the Labour Party, since when she has been designated as an Independent. She is not standing for re-election in Pennsylvania.

Olwen Foggin is also standing down, in Heavitree, which she has held for Labour since 2014. She will instead contest St Loyes, a Conservative stronghold for the past decade where all three ward councillors currently represent the party. David Henson, who was first elected in 1983, is standing down. Anne Jobson hopes to successfully defend the seat.

Robert Lamb, the Labour candidate who gained the most votes in St. Thomas in 2016 and was thus elected to serve for four years, was disqualified from the city council last Wednesday after not attending any of the meetings at which he was expected for six months. He was absent without submitting apologies from thirteen of seventeen meetings at which he was expected in the past year, and had an attendance record of 39% the previous year.

The runner-up in St. David’s in 2016, a Labour candidate who was elected to serve a three year term, also subsequently stopped attending almost all of the council meetings at which he was expected after moving to London in 2018.

And Keith Owen, who was first elected as an Exeter Labour city councillor in 2012, is standing down in Duryard & St. James, where Exeter Liberal Democrats have won both of the past two elections, in 2018 and 2019.

At the last city council elections in 2019 all three city centre wards went to challengers. Michael Mitchell won Duryard & St. James for the Liberal Democrats and community campaigner Jemima Moore won in Newtown & St. Leonard’s, standing as an Independent after the city council closed Clifton Hill sports centre and earmarked the site for redevelopment.

At the same time Diana Moore won St. David’s for Exeter Green Party by a country mile, polling the largest number of votes of any candidate standing in any ward (1455), the largest margin of victory across the city (659 votes) and the city’s largest vote share (55%).

These three subsequently formed the Progressive Group on Exeter City Council with Kevin Mitchell, who had held Duryard & St. James for the Liberal Democrats the previous year, as group leader. Since then they have together presented much of the effective opposition to Exeter City Council’s ruling Labour group, despite the Conservative group holding six seats to their four.

The Progressive Group has since decided to build on its cross-party consensus by standing uncontested by each other in six wards across the city. As a result Amy Sparling is standing in St. David’s, Catherine Rees in Heavitree and Dan Grey in Newtown & St. Leonard’s (with Jemima Moore’s endorsement) for Exeter Green Party, and Will Aczel is standing in Duryard & St. James, Nigel Williams in Pennsylvania and Adrian Fullam, a previous Exeter City Council leader, in St. Thomas for the the Liberal Democrats.

Both parties have agreed to field candidates in all divisions in the Devon County Council elections so all voters who wish to can vote for each of them at these elections.

Exeter City Council electoral wards map

Exeter City Council electoral wards. Contains OS data © Crown copyright and database right 2019

Elsewhere in the city, Conservative John Harvey is standing against Labour Executive member David Harvey (no relation) in Pinhoe, where there has been a close two-way race between the parties for over a decade. In 2019 Labour’s Trish Oliver beat Conservative Cynthia Thompson by just 15 votes, a margin of 0.6%. The previous year Labour’s Duncan Wood beat Conservative Keith Sparkes by 71 votes.

In 2016, when all three seats were elected at the same time, Labour took two and the Conservatives one, with less than a hundred votes separating all three winning candidates. In a by-election the previous year Conservative Cynthia Thompson beat Labour’s David Harvey by just six votes. In 2010 it was even tighter: four votes won the seat for Labour.

Pinhoe may turn out to be the closest contest in the city: Pennsylvania may be the most open. None of the candidates in the ward have previously been Exeter city councillors. The Liberal Democrats won there in 2010, the Conservatives in 2012 and 2014 and Labour in 2018 and 2019.

Meanwhile the sole Women’s Equality Party candidate in Exeter at these elections, Bea Gare, is standing in Duryard & St. James, and both Labour and Conservative leaders are defending their seats, Phil Bialyk in Exwick and Andrew Leadbetter in Topsham.

A full list of candidates is available via the city council website. Exeter City Council Conservative, Green, Labour and Liberal Democrat manifestos are available online.

2017 Devon County Council election results map

2017 Devon County Council election results. Source Wikipedia under Creative Commons license.

Exeter Labour only needs to win two of the fourteen city council seats being contested at these elections to retain control of Exeter City Council as it already holds eighteen of the other 25 seats.

This makes it all but inevitable that Exeter City Council will shortly meet the Electoral Reform Society’s definition of a “one party council”, having been overwhelmingly controlled by the same political party since 2012.

Academic research has shown that this “weak electoral accountability” greatly increases the likelihood of corruption, cronyism and spending decisions which offer poor value for public money.

Devon County Council has been a one party council, under the same leader, since 2009. Its current composition is 42 Conservative, seven Labour, six Liberal Democrat, two Independent, one Green Party, one East Devon Alliance and one North Devon Liberal member, following the 2017 elections before which boundary changes also took place.

Devon County Council elections

Elections for all 60 members of Devon County Council will also take place on 6 May. 56 of these councillors represent single-member divisions and four represent divisions which have two councillors each: Broadclyst and Exmouth.

There are nine Devon County Council electoral divisions in Exeter, each of which roughly maps onto two city council electoral wards. Exeter City Council is administering all the elections that are taking place in the city on 6 May, so notices including details of nominated candidates and their agents are published on its website for both city council and county council elections.

Like Rachel Lyons, Greg Sheldon is standing down in Heavitree & Whipton Barton, having won a by-election there by just 40 votes in 2019 after Labour support collapsed in what had been a party stronghold. Conservative John Harvey came a close second, with Labour’s lost votes being divided equally between Liberal Democrat and Green candidates. Danny Barnes is hoping to hold the seat for Labour at these elections.

At the same time as contesting the Pinhoe city council ward, John Harvey is standing in Pinhoe & Mincinglake, where Labour’s Hilary Ackland is standing down and Tracy Adams is standing in her place. Local community organiser Kate Jago is also contesting the division as an Independent.

Labour is defending seven of the city’s nine county divisions, including Exwick & St. Thomas where Rob Hannaford, Labour group leader at county hall, won a majority of more than 1300 votes in 2017. Andrew Leadbetter, Conservative group leader on Exeter City Council, is defending his county council seat in Wearside & Topsham, and Conservative Percy Prowse is defending Duryard & Pennsylvania, where Bea Gare is also standing for the Women’s Equality Party.

A full list of candidates for the Devon County Council elections in Exeter is available via the city council website. Devon County Council Conservative, Green, Labour and Liberal Democrat manifestos are available online.

Devon County Council Exeter electoral divisions map

Devon County Council Exeter electoral divisions.
Contains OS data © Crown copyright and database right 2019

Devon & Cornwall Police and Crime commissioner elections

The regional police and crime commissioner will also be elected on 6 May, by up to 1.3 million electors across twelve local authorities in Devon, Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly. They will serve a shortened three year term on the same basis as the Exeter city councillors elected that day.

Unlike the city and county council elections, police and crime commissioner elections are decided using the supplementary vote system, provided there are more than two candidates.

Under this system, ballot papers present two columns of boxes alongside the candidates’ names. One column is for voters to mark their first choice candidate and the other a second choice. For the vote to be counted the elector must cast a first choice vote. In the second column the elector may also mark a cross next to their second choice candidate.

If a candidate receives more than 50%+1 of the first choice votes they are declared the winner. Otherwise the two candidates who achieve the highest number of first choice votes progress to a second stage in which the second choice votes from the ballot papers of candidates who have been eliminated after the first round of voting are then counted for the remaining two candidates.

The winning candidate is then the one with the highest number of votes after adding first and second choice votes together.

This is what happened at the last Devon & Cornwall police and crime commissioner elections in 2016. There was no outright winner after all the first choise votes had been counted, so Conservative Alison Hernandez and Labour’s Gareth Derrick progressed to a second round in which more than 42,000 first choice votes which had been cast for four other candidates were redistributed on the basis of second choice preferences.

Alison Hernandez then won by a margin of 3794 votes, with 51.1% of the total against Gareth Derrick’s 48.9%.

Devon & Cornwall Police and Crime commissioner election results 2016

Devon & Cornwall Police and Crime commissioner election results 2016.
Image: Wikipedia under Creative Commons license

Alison Hernandez and Gareth Derrick, who is also a Plymouth city councillor, are both standing again at these elections, as are Liberal Democrat Brian Blake and Stuart Jackson of the Green Party. Election statements by each candidate are available on the Choose My PCC website and election notices including details of nominated candidates and their agents are published by Exeter City Council, which is taking overall responsibility for co-ordinating this election and announcing its results.

Regional police and crime commissioners are paid a salary of £86,700 per annum, a rate set by the Home Secretary, which is nearly £5,000 a year more than an MP’s basic salary, although MPs enjoy very generous expenses allowances and ministers receive considerably more.

Unlike the city and county council elections, in which deposits are not required to stand, candidates for police and crime commissioner must pay a £5,000 deposit which is returnable only if they poll at least 5% of the total number of valid first preference votes cast.

Five candidates failed to meet this threshold in 2016, in Hampshire, Kent, Nottinghamshire, Staffordshire and West Yorkshire.

Election safety

Many local councils previously expressed doubts over whether it would be possible to hold these elections during the coronavirus pandemic.

The Government subsequently defined new rules to enable them to go ahead and the NHS coronavirus vaccination programme met its target of offering all adults over 50 years of age and others in priority groups their first jab by 15 April, three weeks before polling day.

The government then announced that previously planned restrictions on outdoor election campaigning, including door to door canvassing, would be relaxed from 8 March in step with its planned changes to lockdown rules.

Then from 29 March, the same day as the “rule of six” returned, election canvassing was allowed to follow the same pattern, so groups of up to six campaign activists from different households could work together outdoors.

As there has been no change to the rules on meeting others indoors, doorstep campaigning activity must continue to take place on a one-to-one basis. The guidance also stipulates that campaigners should not collect postal ballots from electors for submission or transport electors to or from polling stations in private vehicles.

Electoral Commission voting safety graphic

Guidance intended to make polling stations safe has also been published. People are encouraged to take their own pen or pencil to mark ballot papers. Masks must be worn on the same basis as in any indoor public place and social distancing guidelines must be similarly followed.

Hand sanitiser will be available and, where appropriate, screens and distance markings will be used inside polling stations, which will be cleaned regularly and ventilated as much as possible.

All Exeter’s main political parties have agreed not to site tellers at polling stations this year. Tellers are party volunteers who usually wait outside polling stations to collect poll numbers of voters as they enter or leave to check whether their party’s expectations about the turnout of their vote in particular wards are being met.

Tellers play no official part in elections and voters are not obliged to speak to them: doing so is entirely voluntary.

How to vote

You must be on the electoral register in order to vote and the choice between voting in person and voting by postal or proxy vote remains as normal.

A significant increase from the nearly one in five votes that are usually cast by post in local elections was expected, but only around 17% of Exeter’s voters have taken up this option.

Voter registration for these elections closed last Monday and applications for new postal votes and routine changes to existing postal and proxy votes closed the following day.

Electoral Commission voting options graphic

It nevertheless remains possible to submit a new application to vote by proxy (via an appointed person who must also be eligible to vote) until 5pm on Tuesday 27 April.

A form must be downloaded, completed and posted to the city council electoral service so that it arrives before the deadline passes.

You can also send scanned forms by email to [email protected] The city council electoral service will post forms on request to those who cannot print them.

Anyone who needs to self-isolate because of coronavirus can also request a proxy vote up to 5pm on polling day itself by contacting the city council electoral services team by email or telephone on 01392 265141.

This also applies to existing proxy arrangements: voters can appoint a new proxy up to the same deadline if their proxy is unable to vote on their behalf because of COVID-19. Such applications do not require medical attestation.

Applications for replacement spoilt or lost postal votes can also be submitted until 5pm on polling day.

Electoral Commission polling station location graphic

On 6 May 55 polling stations will be open from 7am to 10pm across Exeter, including a pub and thirteen schools, several of which will remain open to pupils.

Everyone who is on the electoral register should receive a poll card which says where their polling station is located. Voters can only cast their ballots at the polling station specified on this card.

The location of Exeter polling stations can also be found by postcode search.

Any voter who arrives at their polling station before 10pm and is in a queue waiting to vote at 10pm will be able to vote.

On entering the polling station you or your proxy can show your poll card to the staff, or tell them your name and address instead.

Despite popular perception to the contrary you do not need a poll card to vote, provided you are on the electoral register, nor do you need to provide any personal identification to do so.

You will then receive ballot papers on which you can cast your vote(s) by marking a cross next to the candidate(s) you want to support in one of the available polling booths, before folding your ballot paper and placing it in a ballot box.

The colour of the ballot papers for each of the elections will differ.

Postal votes must be returned by 10pm on polling day either by post or by hand to any polling station in the same voting area.

When all Exeter’s polling stations have closed, the city’s ballot boxes will be taken to the Riverside Leisure Centre so ballot papers can be verified and votes counted.

This year the counts will not start until the day after the vote, with the county council count in the morning and the city council count in the afternoon.

Police and crime commissioner counts will begin at different times in different parts of Devon and Cornwall. The Exeter count will take place on the morning of Monday 10 May with the full regional results to be announced in Exeter on Monday afternoon by the city council’s returning officer.

Limits on the number of people allowed at the counts have been imposed, with only electoral staff, candidates and their agents permitted in the main hall. The city council will live stream the counts and the results declarations via its Facebook page.

Records of previous elections held in the city are also published by the city council.


 is editor of Exeter Observer and a director of its publisher Exeter Observer Limited.

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