Coastal Tories seem invincible

By GRAHAM DINES and SARAH CHAMBERSOPPOSITION parties will be hoping to make inroads into a sizeable Conservative majority when Suffolk Coastal goes to the polls a week tomorrow.


OPPOSITION parties will be hoping to make inroads into a sizeable Conservative majority when Suffolk Coastal goes to the polls a week tomorrow.

The Conservatives dominate the authority, having stormed to victory in 1999. They currently hold 37 of the 55 seats at the council, giving them a majority of 19 over all other parties.

The Liberal Democrats have ten seats, while Labour holds seven, and there is one Independent.

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The Conservatives have made their intentions clear. They rule the council, and are proud of the fact.

They will be fielding a candidate in every seat, and indeed nine have been returned unopposed – three in Kesgrave East, two at Nacton, three at Rushmere St Andrew and one at Witnesham.

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The Liberal Democrats have 40 candidates standing. However, Labour has only bothered in 21 of the divisions.

Joining the fray will be nine candidates from the Green Party while in Felixstowe, two candidates will be attempting to win seats on behalf of the newly-formed Firefighters Against Cuts.

In addition, there is a lone representative of the UK Independence Party at Woodbridge Kyson and a lone independent who is hoping to win of the seats at Leiston.

But while the number of seats remain the same, ward boundaries have been changed and this could have some impact on how the composition of the council is made up after May 1..

This will be the first election following the Local Government Commission changes, which have reduced the number of wards from 42 to 34, while keeping the same number of councillors.

Whatever the outcome of the election, there are bound to be some new faces, as 17 of the current district council members have chosen to stand down.

Among the high-profile members who will not be seeking re-election are this year's Chairman of the Council, John Richardson, who has represented Aldeburgh since 1991, and Cabinet member Jane Skepper.

Two committee chairmen – Councillors Colin Bentley at development control sub-committee and Bruce Kerr at rights of way – have also chosen to stand down.

This year, interested residents will be able to get up-to-date information on how the voting is going by logging on to Suffolk Coastal's web site. From the home page, there will be a link to an election results site, which will be updated three or four times during the night of May 1, starting shortly after the first results are declared around 10pm.

The parties will be fighting it out on a range of issues, but according to Conservative Ray Herring, who has led the authority for the past four years, the main focus will be council tax and quality services.

He praised his party's record on both, pointing out that the district council had managed to keep its council tax increase down to 7.7% despite a "derisory" £9,000 increase in Government Grant. He claimed if Suffolk Coastal had received grant equal to other councils in Suffolk, there would have been a council tax reduction.

"Our efficiency drive which has already produced £1.2m savings and increased our income this year will further be producing cutting edge improvements to the running of the council. New business ideas will be introduced to ensure real value for money over the next four years," said Mr Herring, who is fighting the new seat of Orford and Tunstall.

"Our Conservative approach is to ensure Suffolk Coastal continues to be one of the best run councils nationally and demonstrate that we provide real value for the council taxpayer.

He pointed to the council's record, with good or excellent ratings awarded on all Government inspections and audits.

Among their aims for the future, the Tories pledge to increase the district's recycling rate to 36% by 2006, increase support for the voluntary sector and town and parish councils, and give a high priority to coast protection and local flooding problems.

But Liberal Democrat leader Christine Block, who is seeking to win the new seat of Sutton, argued that although 7.7% was "a moderate increase," it was still a lot more than inflation.

"Over the last four years, under the Conservatives, council tax for Suffolk Coastal has risen by 23.6%," she pointed out.

The Liberal Democrats criticised the Conservatives for bringing consultants in for an 'efficiency drive'.

"We believe that most people do not want their council to spend some £167,000 on consultants to produce such things as a 'new management culture' but no targeted, recognisable savings," she said.

The party wants to open the Cabinet system of local government to all political groups and allow public questions at council meetings to demonstrate the openness of the council.

The Lib Dems want money spent on dealing with "real issues", such as affordable housing, employment for young people and a safe and secure environment.

And the party believes the district needs to strengthen its diverse economic base and support the economic well being of the six towns within its boundary.

Labour Leader Mike Deacon, hoping to sweep home in his Felixstowe North division, said his party wanted to see more affordable housing, better facilities for young people and better job opportunities, especially in Felixstowe, Woodbridge, Saxmundham, Leiston and Framlingham.

Labour would reverse the current Felixstowe South Seafront land policy in favour of a scheme that would feature more open space. If they could demonstrate there would not be a flood risk, this would include some affordable housing, he said.

"We oppose the concept of an expensive novelty park," he said. However, with only 21 candidates, Labour is highly unlikely to be in a position to implement its policies.

Labour's manifesto says it will work with other authorities to improve roads in the district where safety problems exist, such as the Dock Spur roundabout on the approach to Felixstowe.

The party also wants to improve rail links and encourage more freight to be carried by rail from the Port of Felixstowe.

The Green Party is fighting on a range of environmental issues, as well as improving access to the countryside. Its Martlesham candidate John Forbes, chairman of the constituency party, says the plan is to invest in renewable energy sources such as wind and solar power and support a major switch to organic farming, local production and local markets.

The aim is the creation of an "ecologically sustainable society which is fair for all but does not deplete the earth of its resources."

The Greens are fielding candidates in Aldeburgh, Earl Soham, Framlingham, Grundisburgh, Hacheston, Martlesham, Peasenhall, Woodbridge Riverside, and Yoxford.

Steven Brinkley and Paul Woolstenholmes, the duo representing Firefighters Against Cuts, say they want to "re-establish a balance in the political representation now absent from the mainstream parties."

Standing in Felixstowe North – currently a safe Labour seat – their objective is to resist cuts in the fire service and increase the numbers of firefighters and control operators to allow it to meet "the ever increasing demands" placed upon it.

Among familiar names trying to win a seat on Suffolk Coastal are Tories Sir Peter Batho in Saxmundham and Trevor Hawkins in Leiston, Cherie MacGregor will be battling away in Felixstowe South for the Liberal Democrats, while for Labour former parliamentary candidate Mark Campbell is contesting Felixstowe South and party stalwart Catherine Knight has surfaced in Trimleys with Kirton.

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