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Tuesday, 30 April, 2002, 09:05 GMT 10:05 UK
Fighting Walsall's 'rotten' image
Walsall town centre
Walsall is looking for a prosperous political future
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By David Schaffer
BBC News Online

"Rotten borough" screamed out from the front page of the local paper in Walsall.

Just days before the polls open in the elections, the Advertiser was quoting the latest campaign material by the Labour group.

It reminds the people of the West Midlands town their council was almost taken over by central Government just two months ago.

In a last bid for votes, Labour has sought to distance itself from the way the council, currently under a Conservative/Liberal Democrat leadership, has been run.

Walsall council has needed a good shake-up for a long time - they're not interested in the public

Resident, Tom Bryan
The party has used evidence from the Audit Commission (AC), which delivered a damning report on all aspects of the council's work in January.

"Walsall council has failed local people," said AC controller Sir Andrew Foster, when it was released.

Among a host of issues, the report detailed major financial problems, political infighting and poor delivery of services.

While the council says a lot of work to turn the problems around has been done, it is a stark a reminder of facts that some candidates do not need.

According to Conservative council leader Tom Ansell, Labour's move reneges on an agreement all political parties made not to use the AC report as a campaign battering ram.

Kundha Singh, who lives in the Shelfield area of Walsall
Kundha Singh: might not vote
"We have sent copies of Labour's leaflets down to local government minister Nick Raynsford and it is now up to him what he does about it," Mr Ansell told BBC News Online.

"The party has tried to place all the blame on the current administration, when a lot of things in the report cover the period of five years, between 1995 and 2000, when Labour was in control."

Councillor Harold Withnall, Labour group leader, rejected the claim an agreement was made not to draw on the AC's evidence in campaigning.

"I'm not suggesting there weren't problems when Labour was in power, but we've used only the elements of the report the Conservative/Lib-Dems were responsible for in our criticisms," he said.

Walsall candidates
Conservative - 20
Labour - 20
Lib-Dem - 8
Independent - 7
UK Ind Party - 4
Socialist Alliance - 4
Green - 3
Lib-Dem - 2
Looking around Walsall, the row seems to echo the feeling this is a town that is being held back.

"They (councillors) need a bomb putting under them," said Tom Bryan, who lives in the Birchills area.

"Walsall has needed a good shake-up for a long time - they're not interested in the public."

Kundha Singh, from Shelfield, was equally critical.

"Local people are suffering as a result of internal bickering within the council," he said.

"That applies across all parties, and this time around I'm not sure whether I will be voting."

Walsall town hall
Political in-fighting has been rife at Walsall council
Jo Levine, Liberal Democrat candidate for the Aldridge ward, agrees it is high time Walsall's "shabby image" was laid to rest.

"There's been a reprieve for the council in the fact that it has not had Whitehall take over its affairs but all councillors must take this on board," she said.

Councillor Kenneth Worley, Labour candidate for Bloxwich West, is keen to talk about how Walsall is now moving forward.

"What we've got to do is to start talking a lot more positively about what Walsall can achieve," he said. "If we don't, then we will lose the electorate."

Turnout fears

Putting people before politics is the only way to regain the electorate's confidence, argues Annette Taylor, an independent candidate for Bloxwich East.

"We're hoping that now councillors have been forced into the spotlight they will be watchful of what they are doing a lot more and serve local people," she said.

With turnout as low as 30% in previous elections, no party has been willing to second-guess voters' behaviour on Thursday.

If recent events mean even more people stay at home, it is clear reforming the council is not the only major obstacle to a potentially prosperous Walsall.

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