Council tax rise the key issue

COUNCIL tax will be a key issue in the fight to take control of Mid Suffolk – and it has increased dramatically for an average property under the Liberal Democrat and Labour joint administrations during the past eight years.

By John Howard

COUNCIL tax will be a key issue in the fight to take control of Mid Suffolk – and it has increased dramatically for an average property under the Liberal Democrat and Labour joint administrations during the past eight years.

Since the Conservatives/Independents lost power in 1995/6 when the district council element of the bill was just over £40 for a band D home, it has risen from 1996/7 to today to more than £110 under Liberal Democrat/Labour coalitions.

The Conservatives are determined to wrest control of the council back from the Liberals and Labour councillors after eight years on the sidelines, even if they have to form an alliance with sympathetic Independents to achieve it.

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Already two Conservatives and an Independent sympathetic to the Tories have been re-elected unopposed, Roger Saunders, representing Bramford and Blakenham and leader of the Conservatives, and Charles Tilbury at Wetheringsett. Charles Flatman at Eye, an Independent, is also back.

The Liberal Democrats have seen their chairwoman of the authority Vivienne Hoy, at Barking and Somersham, returned unopposed, and Labour's Gary Install is elected as the second councillor for Bramford and Blakenham after the third hopeful for this seat withdrew.

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There is however expected to be a fierce fight for Stowmarket Central, with three former mayors with high profiles in the town among those trying to win the two seats: Labour's Marilyn Finbow and Ron Snell and the Conservatives' Gordon Paton.

At Needham Market there is also expected to be a real battle on with five people fighting for just two seats currently held by the Liberal Democrats, including the town mayor Ian Mason, who is hoping to take one of the seats for the Conservatives.

It would be an unwise pundit who predicted that former chairwoman of the council and sitting Liberal Democrat councillor Wendy Marchant, would not be returned. If she is, that leaves just one seat left among four hopefuls, as sitting councillor Michael Norris fights to hold on.

While the Conservatives leader is returned without a fight, the Leader of the Liberal Democrats Penny Otton will have to battle to keep her place on the council and Rattlesden ward, where the Rt Hon The Lord Michael Morris challenges her.

Roger Saunders, leader of the Conservative Group at the council, said: "Do we think the Conservatives can win outright? We hope so. We are fielding 31 candidates. This is far more than the other two main parties.

"The Liberal Democrats can only field 21 and Labour 14. So we already can see that they have settled for another alliance.

"The majority of their candidates are not contesting each other, only Conservatives. If we do not obtain an outright majority, we will explore ways of getting some Independent members support.

"On the doorstep, early on, we were getting queries and concerns about the level of council tax demands coming through the letterbox.

"Affordable housing is an important matter as it is important to try to provide houses affordable to first time buyers in the villages to help keep them alive.

"Street cleaning is also becoming more of a concern to the public and is an issue we are keen to address. Immigration and police on the beat are also concerns, but unfortunately as district councillors we can only have a peripheral influence on the concerns raised.''

The Conservatives believe that the two leisure centres at Stowmarket and Stradbroke are important facilities for the people of mid Suffolk and must continue to offer affordable leisure facilities to all.

But they feel that leisure, along with all services offered by the council, should be looked at to find ways of ensuring that they are not too big a drain on the budget, and become more self-sufficient.

In 1995 the Liberal Democrat group on Mid Suffolk District Council saw it's greatest increase, from five to 12 councillors, and in 1999 this rose to 14.

Penny Otton, a Liberal Democrat and leader of the ruling Liberal/Labour administration, said: "I believe we have been able to change the culture of the council, to introduce public speaking time, to set up a tenant's forum, and a young persons council.

"We hold an annual schools debate and this year the young people were give three real projects with the value of £500 to debate and vote on.

"We are constantly looking at ways in which we can improve the service to our residents whilst at the same time delivering a Liberal Democrat vision of local government.

"I believe the Conservatives are facing a serious dilemma, in the next few years; they do not seem to have a cohesive policy in respect of local government.

"The group has put the environment at the top of it's agenda and has shown its commitment by introducing a greatly improved waste and recycling service, successfully bidding for extra money from DEFRA.

"We have agreed to provide extra rate relief to small businesses affected by foot and mouth and increased the budget for rate relief for other small business.

"We have made a successful bid to the Home Office for CCTV for Stowmarket and put £25,000 capital money into the scheme, given cash to the village shops development scheme, 35 shops in the past year have been helped, and introduced an abandoned car scheme at a cheap rate of £20.''

Tim Lodge, chairman of the Mid Suffolk Labour Party local government committee and a candidate for the Stowupland ward, believes the Party's successful record in locally stands for itself.

He said: "We are aware of criticisms about raised council tax, but a large part of that came from the county council rather than the district. Rather than make cuts we believe we need to provide appropriate services and these cost money. We hope to deliver efficiently, but that is the bottom line.''

Mr Lodge said key issues are affordable housing and the district council hopes to new developments include 30% of houses which are affordable.

Other issues for the Party are the environment, including recycling, and rate relief for small businesses and local organisations, a scheme they want to extend.

Ray Melvin, a long serving Independent councillor, said Independents do not have a common campaign but try to deal with local issues, as well as matters influencing the council as a whole.

He serves in the Conservative and Independents group, although he stresses independents in this grouping do not feel bound by any party whip.

Mr Melvin is very concerned by the level of the council tax this year and feels that the council could have kept their increase down to practically nothing.

The Green Party are fielding seven candidates in mid Suffolk, with some well known locally and very involved in community organisations, who are concerned to ensure the authority has a greener voice.

Roger Stearn, the Green Party candidate for Bacton and Old Newton, said: "Today it is not wise to be in the sun for more than half an hour without a hat or sun block cream.

"The risk is greatest to the young and fair skinned. This is due to us polluting our air with chemicals which have destroyed the ozone layer. Other cancers and asthma are increasing because of poisons in our environment. Now is the time to make sure that at least one council has a green voice.''

Whatever political shape the new council takes, it has certainly lost three of its most well respected characters.

Husband and wife Bette and Eric Jones, who were Independent Labour councillors after resigning on a matter of principal from the Labour group angry at colleagues' stance on car parking charges in Stowmarket, had served the town for years and are not standing again.

Michael "Tuffy'' Turner, a Liberal Democrat councillor who represented Ringshall for 12 years, is also not seeking re-election. Mr Turner was well known for his colourful clothes and ties.

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