Labour in Ipswich danger

LABOUR faces losing overall control in Ipswich for the first time in 25 years when the borough goes to the polls to vote for councillors in each ward.

By Graham Dines

LABOUR faces losing overall control in Ipswich for the first time in 25 years when the borough goes to the polls to vote for councillors in each ward.

Although just 17 of the 48 seats are up for grabs, the dice seem loaded against Labour in what is one of only three local authorities in the six counties of the East of England which it runs on its own.

There is a distinct possibility that the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats will between them command a majority of the 48-seat council. Labour currently holds 31 seats on the authority and the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats are hoping to gain seven seats between them to deny Labour a majority.

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Although the Tories and Lib Dems are unlikely to seek to form a coalition administration, they would be able to work together to force a change of direction on many of Labour's key policies, notably on the future of the Regent Theatre and the Corn Exchange and possibly municipal ownership of the bus company.

The Conservatives fluffed their chance in 2002 to take control when new boundaries forced an all-out election. On a disastrous night for the Tories, the party ended up with just nine seats.

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But last year, growing disenchantment with soaring council tax saw Labour lose a host of seats to the Lib Dems and the Tories and if the low out is as low as being predicted, Labour could be in for a shock.

This year is doubly important because 2005 is the one year in four in which there are no elections. Whoever wins on Thursday has control for two years.

Conservative chances were boosted with the resignation of a Labour councillor in Rushmere, creating a double vacancy in a ward which the Tories gained last time.

Paul West, the Tories' parliamentary candidate for Ipswich, will be trying to win a council seat in Stoke Park ward. Labour activists, desperate to stop such a publicity coup being handed to Mr West, are spending more time than usual there, risking the loss of other seats because of a lack of campaigning in them.

Peter Gardiner, the Labour leader on the authority, believes voters in the borough face a stark choice – between the Labour Party "with a positive programme for making Ipswich cleaner and safer" and the Tories and Liberal Democrats "running entirely negative campaigns with no positive suggestions whatsoever."

Mr Gardiner said: "The one policy the Tories do have – which they are desperate to keep secret – is the mass privatisation of council services in Ipswich. At a recent council meeting when asked what the Tories would privatise if they took charge, their leader replied: `What wouldn't we privatise?'

"If Labour is re-elected, our programme will includes on the spot fines for litter louts, mobile CCTV cameras to help curb anti-social behaviour in local shopping areas, an extension of our street light improvement programme, blue and brown recycling bins to all of Ipswich allowing us to recycle 60% of household waste, and the installation of 150 new or replacement litter bins

"Labour is able to provide better services while keeping council tax down. This year other councils in Suffolk – run by the Tories and Liberal Democrats – were introducing panic measures of large cuts in services and massive increases in charges to balance their budgets. Labour-run Ipswich had the lowest Council Tax increase in six years with no major cuts in services or increase in charges.

"Average council tax in Ipswich is now lower than most Suffolk councils and taking inflation into account Ipswich Borough Council's tax is actually lower than when Council Tax was introduced in 1992."

The Tories are majoring on the constant above inflation rises in average council tax over the past few years. Group leader Dale Jackson said the borough should not have raised tax above the rate of inflation.

The Tory manifesto screams "Ipswich Deserve Better" and Mr Jackson believes the borough has not had a fair deal for years.

"We will re-open Dogs Head Street, pave Upper Brook Street, and move the bus gyratory to Upper Orwell Street. Narrowing roads by installing greatly underused bus and cycle lanes has exacerbated traffic problems."

The Tories would support the East Bank link road into the port and will oppose Labour's plans to sell off the Corn Exchange, a decision branded by Mr Jackson as a "disgrace"

The Conservatives would sell the Regent Theatre to ensure its future is in the hands of those who know how to run entertainment complexes. "The interior of the Regent has not changed since I went to watch Morecambe and Wise well over a generation ago. The staff at the Regent do a marvellous job but they have been very badly let down by their political masters."

The Tories have promised to work closely with Suffolk Constabulary to try to stamp the growing amount of anti-social behaviour.

And in a dramatic attempt to cut costs, the party wants to axe the number councillors for each ward from three to two.

Liberal Democrat leader Inga Lockington promised that a Liberal Democrat Ipswich would be "honest, environmentally aware, fair and committed to sound maintenance of infrastructure. We would solve problems locally harnessing our communities' talent and diversity."

Mrs Lockington said the party would utilise community forums to take decision-making as close as possible to Ipswich's diverse communities. They would be empowered to make and take service and infrastructure maintenance decisions which are best determined locally.

"On housing, we would impose a minimum 25% target for substantial new brown field development, adhere to sequential (brown field) development ahead of green field sites, and not develop green fields until open public environmental impact studies are concluded."

The Lib Dems would secure the futures of Broom Hill lido and the Regent Theatre by establishing Trusts to seek external funding and development opportunities. The Corn Exchange would be retained for community use with a major review of cost-effective management.

A Lib Dem council would "establish a variety of doorstep collections that recognise the differing characteristics of Ipswich's street-scenes to maximise recycling whilst minimising pavement obstruction."

If Labour does lose overall control, the practice of choosing only Labour candidates as mayor will be stopped. It's likely a Tory mayor will be chosen this year, followed by a Liberal Democrat in 2005.

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