Don't forget the county poll

ALTHOUGH all the attention has been focussed on the General Election on Thursday, in many ways the county council poll is more interesting and more important.

ALTHOUGH all the attention has been focussed on the General Election on Thursday, in many ways the county council poll is more interesting and more important.

In Suffolk the poll also seems much more tightly contested with the result far more difficult to predict.

While most commentators are not expecting major changes in the parliamentary map of Suffolk, the political complexion of the county council could well change dramatically.

And all the political parties acknowledge they are thrashing around in the dark because changes to divisional boundaries have made it much more difficult to establish where they are strongest.

Boundary Commission changes have reduced the number of county council seats from 80 to 75.

That has meant divisions are larger - and in some of the largest towns we have multi-member divisions for the first time.

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This means that in Ipswich there are three divisions with two councillors. The Kesgrave division is electing two councillors, and there will be two councillors elected in Central Felixstowe.

Until 1993 Suffolk had been solidly Conservative for more than a century, but in that year it - like county councils across the country - rebelled against an unpopular Tory government.

Labour became the biggest party and entered into a coalition with the Liberal Democrats.

That coalition has remained in power ever since, retaining power in 1997 and 2001 when other nearby counties, including Essex and Norfolk returned to the Tory fold.

This time, however, the Conservatives are confident of winning back power.

However there are several different outcomes possible: any of the parties could win an overall majority of seats.

The Conservatives believe they will win an overall majority, the other parties are not so confident - it would be a major surprise if the Liberal Democrats came from third place to hold a majority of seats in Suffolk.

Any of the parties could be the largest single grouping in Endeavour House without having enough seats to form an administration on their own.

If Labour is the largest single party, they will almost certainly open negotiations with the Liberal Democrats about forming another coalition administration - and this probably would not take too long to agree.

If they could not agree, and that would be unlikely, the Conservatives would have the chance to speak to the other parties to see if they can find common ground.

If the Conservatives are the largest single party, convention has it that they should talk to the other parties (but in effect probably mainly to the Lib Dems) to see if they can agree on a common agenda for an administration.

If they cannot agree, then Labour and the Lib Dems could see if they could come up with a common agenda.

Whoever is in charge at Endeavour House is very important for everyone in Suffolk.

The county council is responsible for Suffolk's schools (although in effect how they operate is largely governed by central government now), social services, roads, regulating public transport, the fire service, waste disposal, libraries, trading standards, emergency planning, and many other services.

In many ways it has more of an impact on day-to-day life in the county than central government.

And its impact on life here is massive - Suffolk County Council is the biggest employer in the county.

Its total budget is in the region of £800 million - and it is responsible for about 70 per cent of your council tax bills.

When they went up heavily in 2003 it was because the county council increased its council tax take by 18.5 pc. The low increase of the last two years has been because the county council has kept it rise low.

Party leaders:

Bryony Rudkin, Labour.

Ipswich councillor Mrs Rudkin has been leader of the Labour group on the council, and leader of the council itself, since 2003.

Over the last four years she has represented Priory Heath division, but now she has moved to the Chantry division where she is one of two Labour candidates.

She remains optimistic that the 2001 result can be repeated - even though there was widespread anger about the council tax increase in 2003.

She said: “We have been getting a good response on the doorsteps on county council issues.

“Our candidates in Ipswich, Bury and Stowmarket have all been hearing that the voters like what the county council has done for them and want that to continue.

“As a group we have worked hard and worked well together - the election isn't clear cut but I am hopeful that things will not change very much.”

Jeremy Pembroke, Conservative.

After just four years on the county council, Mr Pembroke who represents the Kersey area of South Suffolk is hoping to take over as leader on Friday morning.

He said he has been encouraged by what he is hearing from across the county - the voters are telling his candidates that they haven't forgotten the massive council tax increase of two years ago.

“The question we hear time and again is 'what are you going to do about council tax.' It's the question that is dominating everyone on the doorsteps all over the county,” he said.

“There are also people who look at the national issue and don't trust Tony Blair - and they are coming across to us as well.”

There had been a great deal of interest in his party's message, especially the promise to freeze recruitment of new non-frontline staff unless it could be proved they were needed for the efficient operation of the county council.

Peter Monk, Liberal Democrat.

Over the last 12 years the Liberal Democrats, mainly under the leadership of Mr Monk, have worked closely with Labour in the administration at County Hall and Endeavour House.

Mr Monk himself is one of the few candidates across the county who is not facing a challenge from Labour in his Wilford division in Suffolk Coastal - he is facing a straight fight with the Conservatives.

He said it had been difficult to focus people's attention on the county council election - but now that was changing.

“People are beginning to wake up to the idea that there are two elections on May 5, and they are listening to what we have to say.

“I am confident we will do well in the areas of the county where we have done well in the past and have a track record of hard work for the voters.

“As in any election, I think we'll lose a seat here and there - but I think we'll pick up a few as well.”

Current complexion of the county council:

Labour 34

Conservative 30

Liberal Democrat 13

Independent 3

80 councillors - after Friday that number will be down to 75.

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