Anyone seen a Lib Dem in Maldon?

AT FIRST glance, even finding a Liberal Democrat willing to stand for election is an easier task than unearthing a political hot potato in the quiet, agricultural district of Maldon.

AT FIRST glance, even finding a Liberal Democrat willing to stand for election is an easier task than unearthing a political hot potato in the quiet, agricultural district of Maldon.

Divisive issues among the district's 59,000 sparsely-populated villagers, farmers and mariners are thin on the ground.

Political fall-out from the decommissioning of the nuclear power at Bradwell has been minimal; and although the Government's plan to breach the nearby sea wall and flood more than 400 acres of countryside to create a wildlife haven has stirred people into protest, both Maldon District Council and the public are almost unanimous in their opposition.

And so clear and blue is the political water that runs through this Blackwater estuary sailing district – the Conservatives dominate the council – the Liberal Democrats, the UK's third party, are not even fielding a single candidate this year: they want to save their best people for Colchester and Chelmsford.

Yet, below the surface, the seeds of discontent are taking root. In 1999, the Conservatives won 19 of the 30 seats with disparate Independents taking six and Labour five – but with the arrival of one of Britain's newest political parties, the Independent Democratic Alliance (IDA), the mould of Maldon politics may soon be broken.

The area is famed for the annual sailing week at Burnham-on-Crouch, but is perhaps more noted for its Delia Smith-recommended Maldon Sea Salt: this seems to have been rubbed into wounds opened by the "autocratic" style of council leadership.

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Thirty-one seats are up for grabs and Richard French, chairman of the IDA, is confident his nine candidates will force a hung council.

Denying his party was little more than a group of "rehashed Tory malcontents", he said: "Two or three of the present Conservatives dominate everybody else and push things through.

"Too much time is spent bickering across the council chamber about party politics instead of solving the district's problems.

"Our party believes in running the local government, giving the elected members the power. We pledge to enable affordable housing for the next generation and to retain the present council offices rather than spending millions on the proposed new 'palace in Promenade Park'."

Rejecting the charges of autocracy, leader of Maldon's Conservatives Rodney Bass said: "We're fielding 29 candidates and are the only party physically capable of forming an administration. We are already two-nil up, because we're unopposed in two wards.

"Independent assessors have endorsed our very good record and achievements. We shall carry on managing the finances prudently, protecting our coastal heritage, supporting the drive for a community hospital and promoting green policies.

"Labour is traditionally our main rival. We're not worried about the contradictory Independent Alliance. Our aim is to retain overall control."

The Labour Party is fielding 13 candidates and their leader in Maldon, Una Norman said they wanted to continue to be the "conscience" of the ruling Conservative group.

She said: "We'll continue to strive for a solution to the homeless and the desperate need for affordable housing and fight to keep grants to the fund the Citizens' Advice Bureau, which helps the council more than it realises."

Michael Cole, chairman of Maldon's Green Party, said he and his seven other candidates would be campaigning for better planning, particularly to combat the problem of flooding.

He said: "Really, it's a choice between us and the three Tory parties – the Tories themselves, the New Labour 'Tories' and this new party of rehashed Conservatives. We are the only party that looks to our grandchildren's future."

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