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Bins, parks and lollipops….council election turns as dirty as the streets

Bins, parks and lollipops….council election turns as dirty as the streets

🕔26.Apr 2016

There is a general assumption in this country that local council elections are won largely on central government issues. If Labour is doing well nationally, it picks up seats in town halls, and the same applies to the Conservatives, and even the Liberal Democrats.

The 2016 Birmingham city council elections are notable so far for concentrating to an unusual extent on the absolute basics of localism – emptying the bins, cleaning the streets, parks, children’s playgrounds and school crossing patrols are on the front line of this contest.

Conservative candidates in particular have been aiming their fire power at the Labour-controlled council’s record on refuse collection and street cleaning in the aftermath of the wheelie bin revolution. A leaflet for one Tory contender contained nothing more than picture after picture of Conservative activists picking up rubbish on the streets.

In the modern way, much of the ‘debate’ is taking place via social media with Twitter and Facebook brimming over with claim and counter claim.

With just over a week to go until polling day on May 5, there are pitched battles raging over the implications of the council’s 2016-17 budget, which contains getting on for £90 million of savings.

The budget places Labour in a difficult position. The party seeks to attack the Conservative Government for “unfairly” attacking Birmingham yet at the same time would like to give the impression that spending cuts won’t hit popular local services. A clever trick, if you can pull it off.

The Tories and Liberal Democrats have highlighted Labour’s plan to dispose of eight acres of under-used park land a year to build housing and also claim that children’s play areas will be closed as a result of cuts approved two years ago.

Labour was on the back foot after it emerged council officers had prepared a list of 21 playgrounds at risk, forcing council leader John Clancy to issue a statement declaring the list to have been a “huge mistake” by the parks department.

There is a similar ‘you are going to cut, no we are not’ routine going on with school crossing patrols. Labour insists it wants to keep all of the lollipop men and women and is seeking to set up a trust to safeguard the service. Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats say scores of patrols will be scrapped as soon as the election is over.

Congestion charging is another juicy issue. No matter how many times Cllr Clancy says he won’t introduce charges for vehicles entering the city centre or have a workplace parking levy, his Conservative and Liberal Democrat opponents accuse him of being economic with the truth.

As with the children’s playground issue, Clancy hasn’t been helped by the fact that council transport officers have been busy examining a workplace parking levy run by Nottingham council which raises £9 million a year. An obvious question arises: if Birmingham isn’t going to have a parking tax, why are council officers wasting time looking at one?

A promise to build thousands of new homes, a pledge at the top of Labour’s manifesto, brings problems with it, particularly in Sutton Coldfield where up to 6,000 properties can now be built in the green belt following Government approval of the Birmingham Development Plan (BDP).

The Conservatives blame the Labour council for singling out Sutton in the BDP. Labour blames the Conservative Government for introducing the National Planning Policy Framework which it says has forced the council to look at green belt development.

Suffice to say, the cross-party chumminess of Clancy’s early days in charge of the council, where the three leaders would regularly be seen apparently enjoying each other’s company at social functions, is a thing of the past. The Conservative manifesto has the title ”Fixing our Broken City” while Labour’s “Positive Offer” wants to finish the job of rebuilding Birmingham and warns “don’t let the Tories wreck it”.

This election campaign is turning nasty, with Tory group leader Robert Alden openly accusing Labour of “lying”.

Alden was furious at a statement in Labour’s election manifesto suggesting the Tories are seeking to privatise the children’s services department.

Cllr Alden said the Conservatives were proposing to make efficiencies and put additional money into children’s services. He added:

That is not a cut. It is not surprising to see a tired and out of touch administration resort to lying about us when their manifesto for Birmingham is dirty streets, fortnightly refuse collections and building on parks.

The Conservative manifesto, written by Cllr Alden, pulls no punches:

The current Labour Party administration has let Birmingham down. Our city is a great city one we should all be proud of, but a Labour Council that leaves litter on the street is letting the side down. When businesses visit the city they will not want to invest in creating more jobs locally if the area is untidy and unloved, our manifesto would change this transforming Birmingham into a city of pride and aspiration.

Cllr Clancy replied with gusto for Labour:

We cannot afford to let the Tories wreck the good work that Labour has done over the past four years. The Tories have it in for Birmingham and the Lib Dems have treated Birmingham terribly over the last few years. The Lib Dems have been complicit in the Tories’ unfair funding for Birmingham. The Lib Dems pretend it has nothing to do with them, but their part in this is clear. Labour is fighting back. A vote for Labour on May 5th is a vote for a better Birmingham.

Liberal Democrat leader Jon Hunt, picking up on the dirty streets theme, said:

We know the council is facing tough times but it has simply failed to make the local environment a priority. Clean streets and proper disposal of rubbish are what people expect in their neighbourhoods.

What the parties are promising:

Labour

Build 2,000 council houses by 2020 and invest £600 million in maintaining the stock.

Create thousands of jobs and homes around the new HS2 station at Curzon Street, at the former LDV site at Washwood Heath, and the city centre wholesale markets site.

Provide an extra £11.7 million over two years to improve children’s safeguarding services, and create a Birmingham Apprenticeship and Internship Agency along with delivery of the new HS2 Training College to create more apprenticeships for local young people.

Retain community libraries, turning the buildings into local community hubs, cafes and resource centres.

Conservative

Scrap the annual £35 charge for green household waste collection and restore free bulky waste collection.

Give ward committees an annual £120,000 budget for community and youth initiatives.

Cleaner streets with dedicated clean-up crews for each area.

Save all 144 Birmingham school crossing patrols.

Liberal Democrat

Restore free garden waste collections, including fruit and vegetable residuals.

Restore one free household bulk waste collection a year.

Introduce a rewards scheme for high recyclers, using the microchip technology embedded in wheelie bins, by 2018, and introduce separate food waste collections by 2019.

Reverse a £1.5 million cut to street cleaning.

*The starting position for the political parties in Birmingham is: Labour 78 seats, Conservative 30, Liberal Democrat 11, Independent 1, giving Labour a majority of 36.

Six seats to watch:

Weoley

It doesn’t get much closer than two votes, and that was Conservative Eddie Freeman’s wafer-thin majority over Labour’s Steve Booton in 2012. However, Booton did win in Weoley in 2015 to give Labour one out of the three ward seats. The Tories will be fighting hard to retain this seat against Labour candidate Julie Johnson.

Northfield

Labour’s Brett O’Reilly beat former Tory cabinet member Les Lawrence by 61 votes in 2012. The two other Northfield seats are Conservative-held. This is a part of Birmingham where Labour will be looking to consolidate gains, while the Tories will be banking on a comeback by Lawrence.

Springfield

Liberal Democrat Jerry Evans managed to hang on here against the odds in 2012, beating Labour’s Nabilo Bana by 95 votes. But Labour already hold the two other Springfield seats and will be hoping to make it three with candidate Shabrana Hussain.

Kingstanding

A key battleground for Labour and Conservative parties. The Tories won here unexpectedly in 2014 at a by-election caused by the resignation of Labour councillor Cath Grundy. Gary Sambrook picked up the seat with an impressive 405-vote majority. The Labour candidate this time, Jane Jones, is the mother of Cllr Josh Jones, chair of the Erdington district committee. This is probably the number one target seat for Labour.

Sutton Vesey

The sensation of 2012 saw Labour’s Rob Pocock win in Sutton, beating Tory councillor Malcolm Cornish by an impressive 805 votes. It was the first Labour victory in Sutton Coldfield in living memory. Can Pocock, a redoubtable local campaigner, hold on in 2016 against Tory Suzanne Webb? The campaign has been enlivened by the Government approval of the Birmingham Development Plan, paving the way for 6,000 houses to be built in the Sutton green belt.

Perry Barr

Veteran Liberal Democrat councillor Ray Hassall, this year’s Lord Mayor, is defending the seat he has held for 26 years. He won in 2012 with a 533-vote majority over Labour. This time, Labour privately believes it is on course to take the seat.

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