Ipswich doubt for Labour

THERE is one policy on which all three main political parties in Ipswich are united. The borough is big enough to stand on its own feet - it must break free from the shackles of county hall and stand on its own feet.

EADT Political Editor Graham Dines previews Thursday's election battle in Ipswich

THERE is one policy on which all three main political parties in Ipswich are united. The borough is big enough to stand on its own feet - it must break free from the shackles of county hall and stand on its own feet.

Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrat leaders have put their name to the document seeking self rule, a powerful show of unity as Whitehall prepares to spell out the future of local government.

Once a Labour fiefdom, Ipswich has been run for nearly two years by a joint Tory-Lib Dem administration. The two parties took over the portfolios and Labour's mean policy of only allowing its own councillors to become mayor was ended when Conservative Bill Wright was elected the town's first citizen last May.

But the Tory-Lib Dem axis was rudely shattered after just 12 months when two Conservatives walked out to form an Independent Conservative group in a spat as much to do about personalities as it was with policies.

The renegade Tories even threatened to contest up to eight seats in this election to dent the Conservatives' chances, but when nominations closed, not one was to be seen.

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Going into this election, the state of the parties is Labour 23, Conservatives 16, Lib Dems 7, and Independent Conservatives 2. If nothing changes on May 4, the interest will focus on whether the ex-Tories vote with Labour to kick the Tories and Lib Dems out of power.

However, it seems unlikely that Labour will be in that position - a number of its seats are at risk from both the Tories and Lib Dems. Apart from St John's, the Tories confident of picking up Stoke Park and possibly Whitton, but it seems unlikely they will be able to repeat their past success in Bridge.

The Lib Dems have hopes in Alexandra, Westgate, and Whitehouse, while the growing influence of the new private housing on the former Ipswich airport makes the electoral future of the previously unassailable Labour stronghold of Gainsborough difficult to predict.

The Greens are fielding four candidates - in Alexandra, St John's, St Margaret's, and Westgate - and could attract Labour and Lib Dem voters who think environmental policies should be higher up the political agenda.

Liz Harsant has been leader of the authority for a year, the first Tory to hold the position for more than a quarter of a century, and says it's been a challenge. “We inherited major financial problems from Labour - a £25.5m. backlog on building maintenance was just one issue. Ipswich also had one of the highest council tax rates in the whole of the country, with year on year average increases of 9%.

“As promised, we have delivered inflation only council tax increases in our two budgets, and are tackling the maintenance backlog, with improvements at The Regent, Christchurch Mansion, the New Wolsey Theatre and the Town Hall. We funded the Hospital Band's successful Lottery bid for St. Peter's Church, pledged monies for St. Lawrence Church to become a community centre, and to the Broomhill Trust. Our multi million pound programme of works to improve the 8,500 homes owned by the borough is also under way.”

Mrs Harsant says: “We broadened the Government's policy on bus use for older people and the disabled, by pledging free bus travel at all times throughout Suffolk. We have increased the homeless budget, and actively supported a move towards Trust status for the Community Resource Centre.

“Safety has been improved with measures to reduce roadside clutter, and speeding traffic; additional mobile CCTV units are targeting specific areas of anti social behaviour.”

More homes are a top priority. “However, affordable housing means different things to different people: most people still want to own their own home, rather than to rent. We are developing strategies to meet this need but, with an aging population, we are also investigating the potential for retirement communities with a range of facilities, from cafes and hairdressers, to gyms and a medical centre.”

Lib Dem leader Richard Atkins is proud of the central role is playing in the borough's administration. Its manifesto has commitments to localism, environmentalism, open government, community safety and value-for-money Council Tax continue to inform our policy.

“To address the continuing need for affordable low cost / maintenance and environmentally friendly accommodation for low income families and young people, we will work with housing associations and developers who will be required to provide at least 25% quota of affordable properties. We will encourage investment in sustainable social and environmental infrastructure.

“We will press for a fully funded Urban Transport Management Plan to deliver better bus-stations and a new traffic management system to reduce congestion and pollution. We will continue to develop positive alternatives to local car-based journeys,” says Mr Atkins.

“We will reduce crime and fear of crime together with “One-Ipswich” and the town's crime reduction partnership. As planning authority, we will encourage `the designing out crime' in new developments and, as licensing authority, work with pubs and clubs to reduce excessive and antisocial drinking.

“We will seek to adopt Lib Dem Islington's positive alternative to ASBOs, the “Acceptable Behaviour Contract”.

We continue to support a profitable Regent Theatre and the Corn Exchange as a centre for Ipswich Community use, the Wolsey Theatre and the Ipswich Film Theatre. We remain committed to supporting the Friends of Broomhall Pool in their attempts to reopen a viable facility.”

Labour leader David Ellesmere says the Tory and Liberal Democrat priorities over the past two years “are not the priorities of the people of Ipswich. While they talk about spending millions of pounds on new museums, art galleries and swimming pools, they are neglecting the basics such as providing decent housing, tackling crime and services for pensioners.

“Too many Ipswich people still suffer from crime and anti-social behaviour. The Labour Government has given new powers to councils to tackle yobs but unfortunately the Tories and Liberal Democrats have not seen fit to use them. For instance up to March this year only two on-the-spot fines for littering had been issued in Ipswich.

“The Labour Government has shown its commitment to looking after our pensioners by providing free bus travel and winter fuel allowances. However this commitment is not matched by the Tories and Liberal Democrats running the council. They have closed the Age Concern tea rooms; doubled charges such as allotment rents and pest control charges for the poorest pensioners; and put a limit on the number of people who can join the HEARS community alarm scheme.

“There are 3,500 people on the council's housing waiting list and many youngsters starting out can't afford to buy a house in Ipswich. However the Tories and Liberal Democrats running the council have made it clear that providing affordable housing is not their priority. While luxury apartments continue to be built on the waterfront, they have slashed £2m from the council's affordable housing programme.

“A Labour Council would make providing decent, affordable homes for hard working families a priority,” says Mr Ellesmere.

For the Greens, Colin Rodgers - who is standing in Westgate - says: “We want to get Ipswich breathing again, providing a healthy environment. Under Labour, Tory and Lib Dem leadership, congestion in Ipswich Town Centre will continue to worsen.”

The Greens want cheap and clean public transport networks, improved safe provision for pedestrians and cyclists, a reduction in unnecessary journeys through car sharing schemes, oppose any further new road schemes, space to be provided in new homes for recycling facilities and bicycle parking, grey water schemes such as rainwater in showers and toilets, and affordable locally sourced renewable energy.

The indefatigable Sally Wainman is standing in Priory Heath as an independent. Although her main aim is to ensure Broomhill lido is not lost forever, she says: “There has never been a more important time to be involved in the way our country is governed at every level.

“Council tax has risen by 90% since 1997 and the threat of regionalisation hangs over us all - millions of pounds will be wasted with local knowledge devalued, particularly in areas like the fire service.”

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