While much of London will be a Conservative versus Labor story when voters head to the polls on May 5, it will be a different case in the south west of the capital.
Kingston-upon-Thames is generally seen as Liberal Democrat territory, although the Conservatives have been tipped to pose a challenge this time around, making it a borough worth watching.
The Liberal Democrats enjoy a strong base of support in Kingston-upon-Thames, but high council tax levels (highest in London) and several local issues and controversies could tip support elsewhere on May 5.
One issue that has generated significant controversy in the borough is the proposed redevelopment of a beloved swimming pool and recreation center.
The Kingfisher Leisure Center was closed in December 2019 to allow for “urgent repairs” to the roof of the building. Almost a year later and with no apparent progress, the Liberal Democrat-led Kingston council announced plans to demolish and completely rebuild the facility, much to the anger of many residents.
The issue led to the resignation of Lib Dem adviser Jon Tolley from the party last year amid claims the party leadership was “dishonest” with residents over the true cost and timing of the plans.
The future of Seething Wells filter beds – which provided London with clean water in the 19and century – has also become a hot topic in the borough. The private site has been stripped of vegetation and earmarked for development in recent years despite its designation as a site of nature conservation significance. Residents accused the council of failing to act.
The Kingston Independent Residents Group (KIRG), an independent party made up of residents and former councilors of liberal and conservative beliefs, hopes to capitalize on hyper-local issues and a new, redesigned border map. The party’s deputy leader is James Giles, presenter of Russia Today’s Sputnik program and election agent for George Galloway.
The Conservatives enjoyed a majority on Kingston Council from its formation in 1964 until the 1980s, although they no longer controlled the council until 2014.
In the years that followed, the Liberal Democrats gained a foothold in the borough, winning every election in 1986, 1990, and 1998, when no party had a large enough majority to control the council.
In the last election in 2018, the Liberal Democrats comfortably regained control of Kingston Council from the Conservatives who won in 2014.
With the borough voting strongly to remain in the 2016 Brexit referendum, support for the Tories plummeted in 2018, with the Lib Dems snatching 19 seats from the Tories 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% from previous elections. The Conservatives would retain the remaining nine seats. The participation rate in 2018 was 47.3% across the borough.
Ahead of this year’s election, Kingston was subject to a review by the Local Government Boundaries Commission, which concluded that the number of councilors should remain at 48 while the number of wards would be reduced from 16 to 19.
In the years following the last election, the Kingston Lib Dems were plagued by infighting that saw the composition of the council change.
Less than 100 days after the Lib Dems claimed victory in Kingston, councilor Sharon Sumner defected to the Green Party citing a disagreement with the Lib Dem leadership over the decision to close the council’s last nursing home and the need to act in the face of the climate emergency . Ms Sumner will eventually resign from the board entirely in early 2022 amid allegations that she was “bullied into silence” by board leadership. His seat will remain vacant until local elections are held.
In March 2020, just days before the country entered the first lockdown due to the Covid-19 pandemic, council leader Liz Green was ousted by her own party, after leading the Lib Dem group for seven years. She was replaced by Caroline Kerr, who won her seat on the board in 2018.
But Councilor Kerr would step down as leader just 18 months later, in October 2021. The Lib Dem group would then elect Andreas Kirsch as the council’s new leader.
Lib Dem councilor Jon Tolley, owner of the iconic Banquet Records in Kingston, left the party in September 2021 over political disagreements with the party leadership. He would continue to serve on the council as an independent Lib Dem, but later announced he would not stand again in May this year.
Conservative Councilor Nicola Sheppard resigned from her party in March 2022 to sit as an independent on Kingston Council.
Kingston has one of the smallest populations of any London borough, with an estimated population of 179,142 according to 2020 GLA data. This is an increase from the 160,060 recorded in the 2011 census.
Kingston’s age profile is similar to that of London as a whole with a relatively young population and a median average age of 36.2.
About 65% of the borough’s population is made up of adults of working age (18 to 64 years old) while those under 18 represent 21.7%. The over 65s represent 13.3% of the population. Despite this, a considerable number of residents of the borough live to be 90 years old.
Like neighboring South West London boroughs, 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%) is white, while people of Asian descent make up 20%. People of mixed ancestry make up 5% of Kingston’s population, while people of black descent make up 3.1%.
Known as one of London’s ‘leafy green suburbs’, Kingston is one of the capital’s wealthiest boroughs.
The borough has below-average poverty and child poverty rates of 18 and 23 percent respectively, and an unemployment rate of 4.5 percent.
Kingston is however home to the highest council tax rates in London. The average annual bill for a D-strip property in Kingston is £2,097.80.