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There's plenty to debate as districts go to the polls
NEXT month thousands of people across Oxfordshire will be able to have their say on how their councils are run.
Three of the county’s five district councils will be holding elections on May 22.
This will give people an opportunity to elect the person who will represent them on their district council and pass judgment on the work of the incumbent administrations.
Today Damian Fantato looks at some of the issues which are likely to influence how people vote in just a few weeks’ time.
IN NORTH Oxfordshire such is the size of the Conservative administration’s majority that the opposition parties are taking a realistic approach to the upcoming elections.
But that doesn’t mean they are not going to take the opportunity to challenge what they see as its failings.
Labour group leader Sean Woodcock.
Labour group leader Sean Woodcock said: “We are being realistic in that we know the scale of the Conservative majority and that not enough seats are up for election for us to be able to gain control.
“But we are trying to raise awareness of where the ruling party has let people down on a number of different issues.
“We have a good chance in a great number of seats.
“The living wage has come about through our pressure and we feel we have had a significant impact. There is more that we can do but we need more councillors to allow us to increase the pressure.”
The Lib Dems have three councillors who all represent Kidlington and say that is where its focus is going to be at the elections.
Lib Dems group leader Tim Emptage.
The group’s leader Tim Emptage said: “For us the key issue is investment in Kidlington because over the years Kidlington has become something of a backwater as far as Cherwell District Council is concerned, with most investment going into Banbury and Bicester.
“Kidlington is the third largest urban area in the district and we feel that it needs more investment than it is currently getting.
“We will be fielding a candidate in every seat and we are not expecting to gain one but we will be fighting hard to hold the two seats we have which are up for election.”
Conservative group leader Barry Wood.
Conservative council leader Barry Wood said he was confident that the administration’s record would lead to success in the elections.
He said: “Conservatives on Cherwell District Council have an excellent track record of standing up for the people they represent and delivering good infrastructure, services and amenities for the benefit of all. The signature policies of the Conservative Group are no increases in council tax, investment in infrastructure, services and amenities, commitment to high recycling rates, a cleaner, greener Cherwell District and improving customer satisfaction.
“All our candidates are local, well known and committed to public service.
“We are confident these qualities and these policies will help us win the elections.”
All district councils are supposed to have so-called local plans, which set out where homes are supposed to be built.
But Cherwell District Council currently doesn’t have one because it’s previous one has expired and the authority is still putting together its new one.
This means housing developers can appeal to a government inspector if their planning application is refused by Cherwell and it will be decided on very narrow grounds of sustainability.
Plans for more than 500 homes in Cherwell have been approved in that way since October.
MOST councils have a right and a left wing but Oxford is a bit different.
The city council is about as left-wing as they come: it is run by a Labour administration with a Lib Dem opposition and The Green Party and one independent making up the rest.
There have been no Conservative councillors elected to the city council since 2002.
And at the upcoming elections the Labour Party is hoping voters will reward it for what it says is six years of success after it took control in 2008.
Labour’s city council leader Bob Price.
Council leader Bob Price said: “We are hoping to maintain our existing seats and if we were to gain some extra one that would be a very nice bonus.
“We have shown over the last six years that we can provide a very cost effective and efficient administration that tackles some of the big problems that affect the city.
“The fact that we have made £12m of savings is an indication of how effective we have been and I think our services are extremely good value.
“We would expect that the Lib Dem’s complete volte face on tuition fees and their complete ineffectiveness as part of the coalition to mitigate against the Tories will make it easier to pick up votes where there are lots of students who voted for them on the basis of the bribe Nick Clegg put forward before the last General Election.”
But the Lib Dems and the Greens are hoping to point out the failures of the administration.
One of the most high-profile controversies since the last election has been council approval for the Castle Mill student accommodation blocks near Port Meadow, which resulted in a judicial review bid after it emerged they blocked off views of Oxford’s “dreaming spires”.
A subsequent independent review found the city council’s consultation procedure was wanting.
Lib Dems group leader Jean Fooks.
Lib Dems group leader Jean Fooks said: “We think that the city council’s consultation procedures could be much improved and not just when it comes to planning.
“People feel it is not worth taking part and they are not given enough information.
“It will be an interesting election. It will be influenced by national issues, despite what we have been telling people that it is a local election. It is usually recognised that we stand up for the people we represent.
“Hopefully where we have a good record of standing up for people some of our new candidates will be successful.”
Meanwhile the Green Party will be hoping to expand on the five councillors it currently has by raising concerns about housing.
Green Party group leader Craig Simmons.
Group leader Craig Simmons said: “The main issues we are going to be fighting on are first and foremost the housing crisis.
“Oxford is the least affordable city and we have seen rents and house prices go through the roof. The council has tried to address this, and it is well-meaning, but it has failed.
“Half of all new houses are meant to be affordable but a lot of developments are being let through without that.”
He said: “We are looking at a different approach. We are calling for a housing crisis summit to get all the main bodies together to tackle it. We need a concerted approach.
“We will be looking to build on the support we have had over the last few years. We have been getting growing support nationally and locally from people looking for an alternative to Labour.”
IN DAVID Cameron’s West Oxfordshire constituency the Conservatives might have a large majority but that doesn’t mean they’re not taking it seriously.
Conservative group leader Barry Norton.
The Tories have 37 of the council’s 49 seats but leader Barry Norton said: “We never relax and we can never afford to be complacent, particularly given the threat from the UK Independence Party (UKIP).
“These elections are in some ways different to standard local elections because you have the European elections and UKIP fielding candidates.
“Who knows where their votes will come from, and how it might impact on us? That’s an unknown factor but we are quietly confident.
“We stand on our record and we are one of the most successful districts in the county. We have got the second-lowest council tax and we are working with other councils on pioneering ways to save money.
“We stand by our policies like free car parking which has a huge impact on the vibrancy of the local economy and we are going to put £1.6m towards making sure all our rural areas are connected to broadband. We are committed to making West Oxfordshire a great place to live which is a vision we will continue to pursue.”
Labour group leader Duncan Enright.
Labour leader Duncan Enright said: “People in West Oxfordshire need more support from their district council, not just minimal services like they have at the moment. We want to see a district council which is active in bringing jobs into the area so we have jobs here rather than people driving off elsewhere.
“There are people in West Oxfordshire who are doing really well, but there are also people who are really struggling.
“What we try to do is find out what it is that people want done and start from that. We are campaigning at the moment on the Windrush Valley to save it from development.”
The Lib Dems say development – from houses to roads and businesses – is a big issue, with the council in the process of drawing up its local plan of where major building should take place in the next two decades.
Lib Dems group leader Julian Cooper.
Group leader Julian Cooper said: “I think the local plan will be something that will be testing a lot of the communities which are up for election like Woodstock and Bampton where there is considerable development.
“The council has been traditionally dominated by the Conservatives and I think it doesn’t serve the council well when all the scrutiny committee chairmen are of the same party as the cabinet so we would hope that if nothing else we would be able put the case for a more open and democratic council.
“We are defending two seats, and if we can push forward in places like Hanborough and Woodstock that will be all to the good.”
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