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Tory election pledges focus on rubbish, while ‘garden tax’ row leaves Labour rattled

Tory election pledges focus on rubbish, while ‘garden tax’ row leaves Labour rattled

🕔30.Apr 2014

The contrast between Labour and Conservative party manifestos for the Birmingham city council elections could hardly be greater, or more instructive.

The Tories, operating from the safety of opposition with no chance at all of regaining control of the council this year, have released an unusually comprehensive document detailing a host of populist pledges around ‘pavement politics’ issues such as collecting green waste, street cleaning, parking and generally promising to reverse the ‘cuts’ to services made by the Labour council.

To say that it is an opportunistic document is something of an understatement. There are pledges to give the city’s 40 wards more money to spend on local schemes, to keep open swimming pools and play areas threatened with closure, to build 40 new public squares and ‘micro parks’, and of course to reverse Labour’s ‘garden tax’, the £35 annual charge the council has imposed to collect and dispose of garden waste.

Nowhere in the document does it explain how these promises are to be funded. There is just an assumption that the money would be found from somewhere.

Labour, on the other hand, doubtless wishing not to remind voters of the carnage surrounding almost £100 million worth of cuts this year and far worse to come, has released a very thin document indeed that concentrates on big strategic issues. A new university enterprise zone is planned along with a commission to investigate child poverty and a Birmingham Apprenticeship Agency.

The rest of Labour’s manifesto, if that’s what it can truly be called, makes all-embracing promises about tackling drug use and crime, building ‘quality’ homes and “standing up for you in Europe”.

Labour’s key election pledges for Birmingham are available on the party’s national website. The city election campaign will be launched by council leader Sir Albert Bore in Moseley on May 2.

The Conservative manifesto unashamedly goes for the jugular on the issues where the party thinks it can win hearts and minds. Birmingham Tories have always regarded clean streets and rubbish collection as matters of the utmost importance to voters, and the party went to extreme lengths when in coalition with the Liberal Democrats to see off threats of strikes by refuse collectors.

Nationally, the Conservatives learned from Labour’s winter of discontent in 1978 when endless strikes left mountains of litter piled in the streets. Images of rotting rubbish strewn across pavements and a general feeling of hopelessness helped lay the conditions for Mrs Thatcher’s election victory in 1979.

Robert Alden, deputy leader of the Birmingham council Conservative group, said this year’s manifesto “focuses heavily on restoring pride in our great city”.

The intention was to repair the damage inflicted by “two years of a Labour Council that has axed 20 per cent of street cleaning, introduced charges for bulky waste collections and garden waste collections, resulting in our city having bags of rubbish dumped across Birmingham”.

Cllr Alden added: “The Labour Party has let Birmingham down. They would rather leave stickers on bags of waste than actually have them cleared up. 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 Alden said: “If we win control of the council this May then our first action will be to scrap the garden tax, refund those who have paid and reintroduce free garden waste collections to increase recycling levels above and beyond what they were before Labour started charging residents”.

Promises about what the Tories would do if they won control of the council are irrelevant since the party cannot win control of the council this year. Forty-one of the 120 council seats are being contested, and 12 of those already have Conservative councillors (including Sutton Trinity where Phil Parkin resigned and there is a vacancy). So the maximum number of new councillors the Tories could pick up is 28, and that assumes wiping out Labour in every ward.

This is the sort of thing Cllr Alden may relish in his dreams. But to state in a manifesto “if we win control of the council in May” seems entirely disingenuous to me.

There is no doubt, though, that the Tories are on to something with their ‘rubbish’ assault. Backbench Labour councillors are in a state of near funk over the green waste issue and fear voters will turn on them in protest at a service that used to be free but now costs £35 a year.

Only 20,000 out of 400,000 Birmingham households have been prepared to pay for the green waste collection service. Most residents, it seems, are finding other ways to dispose of their garden waste, in many cases simply dumping plastic sacks full of leaves and grass cuttings on the nearest pavement.

Many Labour councillors are demanding that cabinet member James McKay ‘does something’ about this before seats are lost. McKay, whose wheelie bin revolution led to the imposition of a charge for collecting green waste, and to the end of free bulky waste collections, isn’t in much of a position to do anything this close to the election, other than to watch nervously as the results start to appear in the early hours of May 23.

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