Eden Park: the very name conjures a vision of comfort and plenty, of green acres where people wander without a care in the world and exotic brightly-coloured birds twitter from the branches of fruit trees. If you go to the London Borough of Bromley’s Kelsey & Eden Park ward with these expectations, you will not be completely disappointed. It is, for the most part, a wealthy and verdant slice of suburban London in the south of Beckenham.
It is nearly 80 per cent owner-occupied, mostly in solidly built inter-war housing interspersed with parks and sports fields. There are even birds of paradise to be seen in the parks and avenues of Bromley. The area’s commuting population is reasonably well served, with stations at Elmers End and Eden Park on the line to Hayes (Kent), and Beckenham Junction just to the north. It is plugged in to the Croydon tram network and borders some pleasant areas of that borough, such as Monks Orchard. The principal landmark in the area is the Royal Bethlem Hospital. By no means the “Bedlam” of legend, it is a leading mental health hospital whose facilities are located in a pleasant park and whose imposing older building now houses a Museum of the Mind.
From this vista of suburban middle-class contentment, it might be assumed that Kelsey & Eden Park is a Conservative stronghold. The assumption would be correct, although there are some interesting nuances. Under current boundaries the ward has been solidly Tory, although at the Bromley Conservatives’ 1998 nadir the predecessor wards were split in their allegiance between Liberal Democrat Eden Park and Conservative Kelsey Park. I have also slightly overdone its prelapsarian charms: though a pleasant, affluent suburb it is, dare I say it, a little down-scale from the most affluent wards in Bromley such as neighbouring West Wickham, Hayes & Coney Hall and Petts Wood & Knoll, with more terraced houses and fewer large detached properties.
The ward seems to be very gradually turning against the Conservatives for demographic reasons. Between 2010 and 2018 it swung to Labour by about twice as much as Bromley borough as a whole, closing the Conservative lead over Labour from a daunting 42 point margin to a still comfortable but less monolithic 17 point lead last May. It is slowly becoming more ethnically diverse, with a BAME population of 16 per cent in 2011. Neighbouring Clock House ward, the other side of Elmers End station and further along with many of the demographic trends, finally went all-Labour in May and could be a portent of where Eden Park is headed in the longer term.
The new Conservative councillor elected for Kelsey & Eden Park in the by-election of 29 November will be well aware of these electoral trends, for accountant Christine Harris unsuccessfully contested Clock House ward for her party in the main borough elections. She succeeds David Wibberley, who was elected for the first time in May but stood down having moved to a new job in Liverpool following redundancy. The main opposition came from Labour’s Marie Bardsley, who was the front-runner on the Labour slate in May.
Thursdays’ result saw another glacial move towards Labour. The Green vote share fell sharply and all the other parties picked up a little (the Lib Dems have a bit of support in the ward). Labour closed the gap on the Tories by another percentage point. The numerical gap between Labour and Conservative has fallen from just short of 2,000 votes 2006 to fewer than 600. Turnout was par for the course at 29 per cent. Although it was not the most exciting campaign or the most dramatic result, the by-election in Kelsey & Eden Park did illustrate something about suburban politics. Areas like this are still Conservative, but Labour is slowly making progress and this particular apple might fall from the tree in the 2022 or 2026 borough elections.