The battle for Colchester

ONE third of the seats on Colchester Borough Council are at stake on June 10, with each of the three major parties fielding candidates for each of the 20 places.

By Roddy Ashworth

ONE third of the seats on Colchester Borough Council are at stake on June 10, with each of the three major parties fielding candidates for each of the 20 places.

The council is run by a joint Liberal Democrat and Conservative administration – the Tories hold 24 seats, the Lib Dems 25, Labour have five and Independent councillors have six.

Although either of the two power-sharing parties could gain overall control of the council, in reality most pundits consider this highly unlikely. Labour will be looking for gains after recent troubles including the defection of two of its members into the independent camp, which left the party with just four members on the council.

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A by-election in Wivenhoe last month saw Labour gain a seat from the independents but the party only just scraped through in the midst of fierce competition from the Conservatives and the Lib Dems.

Current big issues in Colchester include front line service provision – especially rubbish collection, a sore point in the wake of the council's disastrous introduction of a new waste system recently – and the council's aspirations to "regenerate" parts of Colchester town.

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Four large regeneration projects in the borough have emerged on the back of a number of local needs as well as the Government's requirement for thousands of new homes.

The first of these – in terms of action at least – is at the garrison, a £1.4billion Private Finance Initiative (PFI) designed to see the town's soldiers' out-dated accommodation and training areas revamped at minimum cost to the Government.

The Ministry of Defence is granting redundant land to the developers in charge of the refurbishment so that in return for work on the Army facilities they can build – and sell – thousands of new houses.

The second – and probably most protracted – is the effort to re-house Colchester United which has been playing at a sub-standard ground for years.

The project, which ties in with the creation of a new junction for the A12 and a major housing and business development in the north of the town, is the one that will hit council taxpayers cash hardest. Although some income will be gained from the sale of the existing tatty stadium at Layer Road, the council has to find £8 million of local money to plough into the building of a new "community" stadium for the club to use.

The third, and equally controversial, regeneration scheme is the redevelopment of the run-down St Botolph's quarter. It is due to be revitalised with a bigger bus station, the re-siting of the town's magistrates' courts and a modern art gallery (termed a "visual arts facility" or "VAF").

Finally, the Hythe area of Colchester is also destined to be the centre of major changes. Now no longer a port, and with industrial usage at an all-time low, the former powerhouse of the town is seen as home to a potentially desirable waterside development.

Initially, all of the main parties on the council signed up to commit themselves to the borough's "strategic plan" which set out the framework for these regeneration projects. But last year, when Labour withdrew from the cabinet and went into formal opposition, it began to publicly challenge some of them and target what it thought were current failings in frontline services.

"The Labour Party is committed to delivering first class, high quality services from Colchester Borough Council," said group leader Tim Young. "Under the Liberal Democrat/Tory coalition administration the focus has been on the ostentatious and grandiose rather than the front line services that matter to local people.

"Labour would re-prioritise the borough council's objectives towards improving services, giving value for money and openness and accountability."

And, with reference to the recent bin-bag chaos that plagued Colchester's streets recently, he added: "It must be remembered that Colchester is the LibDem/Tory council that can't even collect the rubbish.

"It is the LibDem/Tory council that wanted to close activity centres for the elderly. It's the LibDem/Tory council that wants to plough millions of pounds of public money into a VAF that has little public support and is in danger of becoming a white elephant."

He added "We would make significant efficiency savings and, by cutting bureaucracy, we would invest even more into front line services.

"The least people expect from their local authority is for the rubbish to be collected – at the moment in Colchester we don't even get that. Labour would change Colchester for the better."

The Tories also claim to be the party of sound economics and quality services at low cost. "Conservatives believe in spending council taxpayers' money wisely and offering the best possible services at the best prices," said John Jowers, leader of the party's council group.

"It is a firm pledge by Colchester Conservatives to keep council tax low ensuring people keep more of their hard earned money in their pockets.

"This does not mean cutting services as other parties claim we would, it means being prudent with taxpayers' cash."

He added: "We also believe in making Colchester borough a safer and cleaner place to live and work. "We will ensure your rubbish is collected on time, every week and that recycling remains high with Colchester as one of the best recycling boroughs in the UK."

But, he said, he and his group supported the VAF and its associated development, which he said would bring greater prosperity to the town by attracting more visitors to spend money on services and in shops.

Liberal Democrat Council leader Colin Sykes insists his party is the only alternative to what he called the two other "failing" groups. "We will encourage urban regeneration, bringing more sustainable jobs to Colchester.

"We will work to make the town centre safe at night and help build the town into a centre catering for all ages. We will work with the police and other authorities to tackle anti-social behaviour. This will include spending more on providing facilities for young people, such as youth shelters and playgrounds.

"We will not forget our older citizens and we are committed to maintaining and, if possible, enhancing our spending on them, and we will work with other agencies to ensure that the Lion Walk and Abbots activity centres remain open.

"We will play our part in preserving the environment – and will ensure Colchester continues to be a leading recycling authority. We will extend doorstep recycling to flats.

"We will support and encourage a reduction in speed limits where the public want and need them, such as the A120 in Marks Tey and help achieve a new park and ride service to reduce congestion in the town."

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