Tax and spend to go, vow Tories

REVERSING the "tax and spend" philosophy of an administration ousted in this year's local elections will be a key aim of the incoming authority for the coming 12 months, according to their leader.

REVERSING the "tax and spend" philosophy of an administration ousted in this year's local elections will be a key aim of the incoming authority for the coming 12 months, according to their leader.

But reducing the projected 25% increase in St Edmundsbury Borough Council's tax bill for the next year will prove a challenging task, according to Conservative group leader John Griffiths.

He was speaking following his group's landslide victory in Thursday's all-postal vote, which saw senior Labour members Ray Nowak, who was until Thursday leader of the council, his deputy Mark Ereira and cabinet member Jennifer Hart all lose their seats.

Following the declaration, the Conservative leader pledged to continue planning towards a Cattle Market redevelopment, while reaffirming his commitment to bringing a multiplex cinema to Bury St Edmunds.

Mr Griffiths also vowed to do everything he could to reduce council taxes increases in the coming years.

"One of the things we are hoping to be able to achieve is to reverse the tax and spend policies which have resulted in very serious council tax increases," he said.

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"We will try to ensure this council serves the people as efficiently and as cost-effectively as possible. We have been left with an inherited position where we are facing a projected 25% tax increase. We have got to do something to reduce that substantially."

Outgoing leader Mr Nowak, who lost his seat by just two votes after the Minden ward was recounted four times, attributed the Labour group's defeat to this year's huge council tax increases and public ill-feeling towards the war in Iraq.

He also cited failures in the group's political machine as a key factor in reducing the Labour representation on the council to the same level at which it stood in 1973.

"I wish I had lost by a larger margin, as that would have been more conclusive," said Mr Nowak.

"But if I had managed to squeeze two or three more people out to vote, I would have been in opposition anyway, which would have been even more frustrating than being voted out."

Mr Nowak, who has served on the council for the past eight years, said he now feared initiatives steered forwards by the Labour-led coalition – such as the Cattle Market redevelopment and multiplex cinema – would fall by the wayside under Tory control.

"These projects will now die a death. We already know there was not a great deal of enthusiasm for some of the things we were putting in place," he added.

Issuing a challenge to the Conservative group leader Mr Griffiths, who automatically won his uncontested seat in the Ixworth ward, Mr Nowak charged the new administration – who criticised this year's council tax rises – to draft a fresh budget.

But Mr Griffiths would not comment on a revised budget, instead focusing his attentions on reducing next year's levy.

Meanwhile, high-profile member Mr Ereira, who stood as a prospective parliamentary candidate against Conservative David Ruffley in 2001's general election, bowed out gracefully after eight years with the borough.

He was beaten by Independent David Nettleton, who vowed to cut taxes in his pre-election pledges.

"Democracy has shown itself. People felt somebody coming along saying they could keep the council tax down, when they can't, is something which appealed on the day," said Mr Ereira.

Miss Hart, Mr Ereira's fellow Labour candidate in the Risbygate ward, was also rejected by the electorate after switching benches from the Conservative group in 2001.

The former cabinet member for the environment was unavailable for comment yesterday.

Despite recording a turnout of just 38.5%, compared with 38.4% during the 1999 elections, officers at the council declared Thursday's experimental all-postal ballot a success.

But for the 12 uncontested wards, which gave the Conservatives a head start in the race for power, the turnout figure would have been higher, said a council spokesman.

Cathy Manning, electoral services manager, added: "We took part in the postal ballot trial to take the vote to the people instead of asking them to go to polling stations, and have held up our turnout against a downward national voting trend."

The new state of power on the council is Conservatives 28 seats (+7), Labour 12 seats (-5), Independents 3 seats (-1), Liberal Democrats 2 seats (no change).

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