POLITICAL parties in Leeds are preparing themselves for what promises to be one of the tightest local election races in a generation.
Labour has ruled the city council for 22 years, frequently romping to overwhelming victories in the contest for council seats.
Now its healthy majority – it has 61 of the authority’s 99 seats – is under serious threat.
Opposition groups sense the political tide is turning and are expecting to make significant gains on Thursday.
While acknowledging a tough battle is looming, Coun Brian Walker, council leader, is up-beat and his message to the voters is: “Judge us on our record.”
He said Leeds enjoyed the lowest council tax of any big city, its council house rents were among the country’s lowest, unemployment at three per cent was below the national average, it boasted one of the most efficient refuse collection services in the country, and had won Government recognition for the excellence of its services which allowed vulnerable elderly people to continue living in their own homes.
Coun Walker said: “We have invested heavily in the city centre, and that has levered in vast amounts of private sector spending, over 2b in the last 10 years.
“Had the council not taken the decision to invest, I doubt our unemployment rate would have been so low.”
He added that the council consistently spent more on education and social services than the Government’s recommended figure, while 10m was to be spent on community safety including combatting anti-social behaviour.
It is the spending on some city centre projects, such as Millennium Square, that Opposition councillors are using as a stick with which to beat Labour.
Coun Mark Harris, Liberal Democrat Group Leader, said: “Resources are hard to come by and Labour is getting its priorities all wrong.
“It is putting money into large capital schemes which are of little benefit to the people of Leeds. We don’t need any more monuments to Labour’s vanity.”
He claimed Labour’s administration of the city was characterised by profligacy and inefficiency.
Coun Harris said the council’s decision to retain control of its struggling sports centres and spend millions of pounds improving them, rather than put them in the hands of a non-profit making trust, was an example of political dogma winning out over commonsense.
Coun Andrew Carter, Conservative Group leader, said that after 22 years in power Labour had run out of ideas and had no sense of priorities.
He said: “We have been out and about and the biggest issue on the doorstep is the breakdown in law and order.
“The council needs to be a lot more pro-active in relation to this issue.
“We cannot tolerate a situation where people are afraid to walk the streets of Leeds.”
Coun Carter also accused the council of failing to properly deliver key services including education, house improvements and road and footpath repairs.
Coun David Blackburn, Green Group leader, said his party was concentrating on key issues such as public transport and street cleaning.
He said: “We don’t support grandiose schemes such as Supertram which would be a total nightmare and cost too much.
“We want to expand the public transport system to solve the transport problems in Leeds.”
Coun Blackburn added: “More resources are needed in street cleansing and better enforcement against people who are dumping.
“We also want to extend the amount of recycling that is carried out.”