Politics, elections and purdah

As the local elections approach, much of local government is now in the mysterious world of purdah. Despite also meaning a religious practice of screening women from men or a state of seclusion or secrecy, the meaning of purdah and the function of the council during this period is quite the contrary.

Purdah tends to relate to the pre-election period where the activities of councils and their staff are restricted to ensure that council activity does not influence the outcome of the election. It has been part of electoral law in the UK for over a hundred years and is also used during the General Election, where MPs relinquish all power and act only as candidates for their party.

The current legal guidelines which councils must follow during purdah are set out in the Local Government Act 1986 and the latest Code of Practice 2011. This sets out what councils are not allowed to do, such as producing publicity on politically controversial subjects, support candidates or engage in other activity that could be considered politically biased.

So, what does this actually mean in practice? For starters it does not mean that councils shut down during purdah like a lot of people think, in fact it is business as usual for most of the council’s staff. All they have to do is to ensure that nothing is released to the public with a political slant. The council continues to function properly during purdah and can surprisingly even publish information to counter news stories, providing the material it publishes is factual rather than political.

One of the main effects of purdah is that officers fill the positions that would normally be taken by politicians in these situations. For example, in local press stories when responding for the council, an officer would usually be quoted, rather than the political portfolio holder who may be up for election. Most importantly in our industry, as the Code of Practice states ‘councils can continue to determine planning applications, even controversial ones’ during purdah. Only those decisions taken by committee will be put on hold.   

Ultimately, we have to remember that the council must always be guided by the principle of fairness. It is crucial that any decision they take would be deemed fair and reasonable by the public and those standing for office.

This article was written by Alan Gibbs, Account Executive at MPC.