Could Essex's county town change course on 4 July?

A mural at Chelmsford railway station
At the 2019, the Conservative candidate Vicky Ford saw her parliamentary majority increase, but the Liberal Democrats won control of the city council [Matt Knight/BBC]

It all started five years ago with a vote, but not that one.

Back in May 2019, Prince Harry and Meghan Markle were announcing the birth of their first child, the Jeremy Kyle show was axed by ITV and perhaps unsurprisingly, the UK was finishing last in Eurovision.

But in the local elections there was a big surprise in Essex’s county town.

Liberal Democrats won control of Chelmsford City Council, gaining 26 seats mostly at the expense of the Conservatives who lost 31 councillors in what became the last throws of Theresa May’s premiership as she lost Brexit battle after battle.

Winning here?

Vince Cable, the then Lib Dem leader, said it showed his party was back among it following the Cameron-Clegg coalition in government which had left the Lib Dems in the political wilderness.

Was it a protest against the Tories, or an endorsement for others? Well later that year, with Boris Johnson in Number 10, voters in Chelmsford went to the polls again and this time gave the Conservative candidate a mandate to get Brexit done, securing them a majority of more than 17,500 – actually up from the 2017 poll by 4,000.

But the Lib Dems have doubled down on their control of the city council in the intervening years, ensuring they will run it until at least 2027. So what happened in the constituency five years ago could be seen as a potential trend going into a general election where the Conservatives have been winning since the 1950s.

A view of the pedestrianised city centre in Chelmsford
Chelmsford city centre has "changed", voters say [Matt Knight/BBC]

In the Shepherdess café on Duke Street talk is of night-time safety, ironically just a few 100 yards from perhaps the most famous of all Chelmsford's nightspots, Dukes, now a memory from a different era.

Connie Pomphrett, 54, is with her fellow volunteers and clients from the Support4Sight Lunch Club, and although she says her clubbing days are behind her, it is clear she might not feel safe going out these days.

"I would not come into Chelmsford in the evening. I don’t feel safe at all," she said.

Connie Pomphrett in a cafe
"Not safe" - Connie Pomphrett has concerns over night-time safety [Matt Knight/BBC]

Married couple Ann and Tony are the same. They’ve been living on the outskirts of Chelmsford for more than 70 years and are also put off by the “changing” city with fewer High Street shops and more talk of women’s safety after dark.

Fellow diner Brian Reid, 71, is less concerned by local issues. He said: "The whole tenor of the government should be aimed more towards the global issues that we’ve got.

"We as a species have bigger issues around global warming that need to be addressed."

A woman at a street food stall in Chelmsford Market
Thai noodle bar owner Kat Martin "loves Chelmsford" [Matt Knight/BBC]

Over at Chelmsford Market there are some signs of support for businesses, with gazebos protecting street food customers branded with the phrase "Funded by UK government levelling up".

Owner Kat Martin says she gets “a lot of support” from the council. She added: “I love Chelmsford, I’ve lived her for over 20 years and I wouldn’t want to live anywhere else.”

A man on a market stall in Chelmsford
Market stall owner Alan O'Brien says there is "no deterrent" to shoplifting [Matt Knight/BBC]

Other businesses tell of the impact of crime on them.

Alan O’Brien, 53, has been running Hat City in the indoor market for 10 years and says shoplifting has a bigger impact then people may think.

"I know a £10 hat might not seem the be all and end all, but to me it’s £10 profit gone," he said.

"I can’t go to my insurance company and say I want my £10 back because my premiums will go through the roof so I’m in a Catch 22 situation and there’s no deterrent."

On the garden stall, Guy Last, 65, has seen it all for the past 32 years. He wants more people "enticed" into the city centre with cheaper or free parking.

"We need footfall. If people aren’t driving into Chelmsford, we’re only picking up those on buses and they can’t carry the same amount of shopping and we lose out," he said.

A street art image of a dinosaur being walked by a boy
Stuck in the past? Will Chelmsford change at this general election? [Matt Knight/BBC]

You can find a full list of candidates standing in the Chelmsford constituency here.

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