Norfolk council election 2021: Battle for close-fought Dereham South

Phillip Duigan and Harry Clarke

Conservative incumbent Phillip Duigan (left) and Labour challenger Harry Clarke (right). - Credit: Noah Vickers

Labour’s county council candidate for Dereham South, Harry Clarke, gestured at a bus shelter. 

“This is the only bus shelter in this part of Dereham, south of the A47,” said Mr Clarke.

“Not everybody wants a bus shelter in front of their house, or even a bus stop, but where you have a slightly higher proportion of older residents, you also have less car ownership,” he points out.

“If you've got a bunch of shopping and you're waiting in inclement weather, you want somewhere to sit down.”

Mr Clarke, a town and district councillor since 2015, is in a close-fought battle for the county division of Dereham South. The seat had a Conservative majority of just 326 in 2017, with Labour in second place. 

Harry Clarke

Harry Clarke, Labour candidate for Dereham South, pictured at Dereham's only bus shelter south of the A47. - Credit: Noah Vickres

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This is not a normal election however, as coronavirus has hampered the usual canvassing and hustings events.

With turnout often low at local elections, the virus may keep even more voters at home this year. 

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“I'm trying to get everybody to vote, because people have fought for the right to vote,” said Mr Clarke, who lists a “more strategic” approach to flood protection, and the reopening of children’s centres, among his campaign priorities.  

He adds that while some local issues “may not be attention-grabbing, it’s important to people in their daily lives. If I can make a little difference, I will have achieved something.” 

Phillip Duigan

Conservative incumbent Phillip Duigan is standing for re-election, having previously held the seat since 2017, and previously from 2009-2013. - Credit: Noah Vickers

He is up against Conservative incumbent Phillip Duigan, a town and district councillor since 1999, who has held the county seat since 2017.

Mr Duigan comes from a Dereham dynasty. His parents both served as mayors of the town and his great-grandfather chaired the old East Dereham Urban District Council during the First World War. 

Looking to Dereham’s future, Mr Duigan said: “To a certain extent, we will become more of a dormitory town for Norwich, but you'd like people in Dereham to have the option of working in Dereham. 

“I'm not going to say, like Canute and the waves, that people aren't going to go [to work] from here, and I support the A47 and the Western Link, because that puts us in the Norwich area, and links us to places like the research park, and the industries of north Norwich.

“But you'd want people going the other way as well. You'd want people coming into the town, for it not to be a one-way relationship,” he added. 

Mr Duigan highlighted his recent work with the aboutDereham group, who are looking at how the town’s marketplace and other streets could be improved, as well as his town council committee’s work on adding 50 acres to Neatherd Moor. 

Asked whether he was optimistic about retaining the seat, Mr Duigan gave a cautious yes but caveated: “You've always got to remember that the voter is your boss in the end, and they aren't as stupid as some people make out. 

“Most voters are actually fairly canny people.”

The Liberal Democrats were unable to contact their candidate, Jenny Pitchford, for an interview.

Mark Foley

Chair of the Breckland Liberal Democrats, Mark Foley, who is standing for the party in Dereham South's neighbouring division, Elmham & Mattishall. - Credit: Norfolk Liberal Democrats

However, Breckland Liberal Democrat chair Mark Foley said: “As community politicians, we believe that half the job is actually about showing up, listening to people's concerns, and getting things done.

“We still have too much of the wrong type of housing being built, that is too unaffordable for local people. 

“The county council owns a property development company and this needs to be instructed to work on building and renovating affordable houses in the areas of greatest need.

He added that his party wanted to “help small businesses in Dereham to thrive” and “make the centre of Dereham a place people want to visit.”

“Many people travel to Dereham to shop but sadly this can often be for no more than a trip to one of the out-of-town supermarkets,” said Mr Foley.

“There is huge potential to integrate public transport more successfully, so people can access the town centre as well as park easily to catch buses elsewhere.”

The election will take place on Thursday May 6

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