Page last updated at 08:23 GMT, Wednesday, 13 May 2009 09:23 UK

County council's 'last election'

By Martyn Oates
BBC South West Political Editor

Exeter Cathedral
Exeter, also home of Devon County Council, made a bid for unitary status

The Devon County Council elections on 4 June are the elections which almost did not happen.

Devon, like its neighbours Cornwall and Somerset, got embroiled in bids to create new unitary authorities in these traditional shire counties.

In the other two counties, the decision was made swiftly and decisively - yes to a unitary council for Cornwall and no to Somerset.

In Devon, however, Exeter City Council's bid for unitary status under the banner of Exeter and Exmouth - and all the rival bids it provoked - is still being considered by the Boundary Committee.

An earlier decision to create a new unitary structure in the county would probably have seen these elections cancelled, pending elections to the new authority or authorities.

Reasonable chance

As things stand, we still do not know whether Devon County Council is set to become a large unitary council - or a smaller unitary alongside Exeter and Exmouth. Or things could stay exactly as they are with the traditional county and district councils.

But there is a reasonable chance anyway that the Devon County Council elections on 4 June could be the last ever.

Devon County Council's elections could be the last ever

Currently, Devon County Council is controlled by the Liberal Democrats.

Power shifted to the Lib Dems from no overall control at the last county council elections in 2005. Previously, they had been essentially sharing power with the Conservatives.

So, much of the political story in Devon and the South West is, of course, the relative fortunes of these two parties.

The Conservatives were still at a very low ebb nationally in 2005. On the day the Liberal Democrats took control of the county council, Labour swept to another third decisive general election victory over the Conservatives.

But, if a year is a long time in politics, four years is a very long time. In the intervening period, the Liberal Democrats have suffered some spectacular defeats in Devon - losing the unitary authority in Torbay and North Devon District Council - a traditional Liberal stronghold - to the Conservatives.

On the present county council, there are 32 Liberal Democrat councillors (down from 33 due to a recent death) and 23 Conservatives.

Labour has managed to hold on to four councillors on the authority, all representing Exeter wards.

Liberal presence

Outside Plymouth, Exeter is the only real centre of Labour strength in Devon.

The way Exeter electors cast their votes in this election will be viewed with interest by the city's Labour MP, Ben Bradshaw.

These elections - together with the European elections on the same day - will be the main test of the public mood before the General Election, which must now take place within the next year.

The lingering traditional Liberal (as opposed to Liberal Democrat) presence on the county council finally came to an end in 2005. But the council still has two independent councillors - another West Country political tradition.

Devon's two biggest population centres - Plymouth and Torbay - will not be having any local elections at all on 4 June. They are both unitary authorities controlled by the Conservatives.

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