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Monday, 7 May, 2001, 13:11 GMT 14:11 UK
Tories pledge to set councils free
William Hague and Michael Ancram at the launch of the Tory local election manifesto
Hague links local and national election issues
The Conservatives are promising to set councils free and will declare war on graffiti and "neighbours from hell" if they get the chance to form a government after the general election.

William Hague on Monday launched the party's local election manifesto for the 7 June council polls but his mind was clearly also on the general election expected the same day.

Main pledges
Lower business rates for small firms
No regional assemblies
Keep county councils
Allow parish councils to hire own constables
"Blue belt" protection on areas around waterways
More say for local people in planning decisions
Fast track eviction for "neighbours from hell"
By focusing at local level on rising council taxes and government "meddling", the Tories are setting out themes on which they hope to build when the national contest is called.

But the Liberal Democrats say Tory councils have raised local taxes more than the other two main parties and Labour says Conservative spending cuts would hit local services.

A total 2,476 seats in 45 English councils are up for grabs in the elections.

The Tories, whose gains target is about 550 seats, hope any success at council level will help them to win more seats in the House of Commons.

Labour tax record under fire

Mr Hague used the manifesto launch to attack Labour-led local authorities that charge high council tax and deliver poor services.

He said that since 1997 council tax bills had risen 31% - three times the rate of inflation.

The manifesto says research by the Audit Commission has found that Tory councils have better services whilst still charging low taxes.

Town hall
The Tories promise to free town halls
By contrast, it says, Labour councils have dirty streets, poor street lighting and don't pay their bills on time.

Mr Hague likened the "failures" of Labour run councils with the record of the Labour government.

"In Whitehall or the town hall, the story is exactly the same - higher taxes on those who can least afford to pay, and poorer services for those who need them most."

The Tory leader said his pledge for more decentralisation was different from the approach of previous governments, both Labour and Conservative.

As well as lower taxes, the manifesto promises "common sense not political correctness" from councils.

'Soviet style plans'

The Tories also accuse Labour of planning to concrete over green belt land and renew their promise to scrap the government's regional targets for new housing development.

They commit Conservative councillors to protecting green belts and developing what's described as new "blue belts."

The blue belt areas would be protected in a similar way to green belt land, where local councils would be able to restrict development.

Shadow environment secretary Archie Norman accused Labour of operating "Soviet style control" over house building.

The Tories would give the councils the power to tackle "quality of life crimes" such as litter and "neighbours from hell", he added.

'Tory shambles'

Local government minister Hilary Armstrong said the manifesto showed what a "shambles" the Tory party was in.

Conservative plans for 16bn in public service cuts - which the Tories deny - would put at risk Labour measures to improve services and tackle crime, she claimed.

"The Tories just can't be trusted on local issues," said Ms Armstrong.

"In government, they shackled local government, starving councils of resources."

The Lib Dems said House of Commons figures showed Tory councils had raised council taxes on average by 7.2% in the last three years, compared to the Lib Dems' 5.6% and Labour's 6%.

Since the last election, Conservatives have gained 2,541 seats, while Labour has lost 2,500. The Liberal Democrats have lost more than 600.

Prime Minster Tony Blair postponed local elections, scheduled for 3 May, because of the outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease.

Emergency legislation was required to rescheduled them for 7 June.

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See also:

06 May 01 | UK Politics
06 May 01 | UK Politics
03 May 01 | UK Politics
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