Braintree battle over value for money
BRAINTREE is one of the largest council districts in the country – and perhaps one of the most diverse.The district covers 236 square miles and stretches from the Suffolk border in the north to Hatfield Peverel in the south, a mixture of town and countryside populated by more than 132,000 people.
By Juliette Maxam
BRAINTREE is one of the largest council districts in the country – and perhaps one of the most diverse.
The district covers 236 square miles and stretches from the Suffolk border in the north to Hatfield Peverel in the south, a mixture of town and countryside populated by more than 132,000 people. It is divided into three administrative areas, based on the three main towns, Braintree, Witham and Halstead.
History is in evidence in every part of the district, which boasts more timber-framed houses than anywhere else in the country. Picturesque towns and villages include Coggeshall, Castle Hedingham, with its large Norman keep, and Finchingfield, one of the prettiest hamlets in England. But the district is not rooted in the past. Modern industries and services, including a factory shopping development and 12-screen cinema, are set against historic market towns and traditional agriculture. New housing estates have sprung up, with more planned to cope with the planned expansion of Stansted Airport.
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The Labour party is in charge on the council, but it does not have a majority as the Conservatives, Liberal Democrats, Greens and Independents combined have the same number of seats. The two previous administrations before the current one were hung. Before that the Conservatives had control.
All 60 seats are up for re-election. Several long-standing councillors are retiring, including Labour member George Warne, who has been a permanent fixture of the council almost continuously since 1974. Mr Warne is a former chairman, as were Malcolm Allard and Fred Card who are also retiring.
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The main issues on theagenda include flooding, traffic and transportation, the need for more low-cost housing, the rural economy, and protecting the environment, which is under pressure from housing development and the threat of a waste incinerator.
A recurring issue on the doorstep is the 16.7% increase in council tax this year. Each of the parties wants to give residents value for money.
Labour leader Ian Pointon said: "More council services will be available to everyone at a time and in ways that suit local people, not just 9 to 5. Vital for those in rural areas."
"The district part of this year's council tax rise was kept to less than half the increase imposed by Conservative-run Essex County Council. Four years of a Labour-run district has cost the average household just 50p extra per week – we'll continue working hard to give local people better value."
Conservative leader David Finch said: "We will provide quality of service and take Braintree district from being a fair organisation to being an excellent organisation."
James Abbott, from the Greens, who is hoping for a "rainbow executive" with no one party getting overall control, said: "Braintree is very good at trumpeting big schemes, but on the coal face, as local ward members find, Braintree is not very good at dealing right down at community level with individual issues – basic maintenance issues. The council ought to be concentrating on basic service delivery - apart from anything else people are really cross about the council tax rise.
"The Green Party is often seen as having just an environmental agenda, but we are much broader, we are concerned with service delivery and also efficiency."
The Liberal Democrats have also pledged more emphasis on front line services. "We will have to make some hard decisions, council tax rises way above inflation are simply not sustainable," said leader Peter Turner.
Michael Gage, who represents the Halstead Residents' Association, is spokesman for the council's eight independent councillors. He said: "One of our main concerns is in the last five years council tax has risen, but we have not seen a complementary improvement in services for the money we are paying."