Page last updated at 15:12 GMT, Tuesday, 29 April 2008 16:12 UK

Tories aim for blue Monmouthshire

By Adrian Browne
Political reporter

Church Street, Monmouth (pic: Suzanne Donald)
Councillors say the area's rich reputation conceals real poverty

As Wales goes to the polls to elect new councils on 1 May, we profile some of the counties and key local issues.


The Conservatives took control of Monmouthshire Council four years ago, a year before recapturing the Westminster seat at the last general election.

If UK-wide opinion polls are reflected in the county, the Tories would keep it blue, if not strengthen their grip on power.

Labour previously seized the council in 1995, when a youthful-looking Tony Blair led the party in opposition to John Major's Conservative government.

That in turn followed the election of a Monmouth Labour MP in a dramatic by-election in 1991, a seat the Tories re-captured a year later, but lost again to Labour in 1997 and 2001.

After electing David Davies as Conservative AM in Welsh assembly elections in 1999 and 2003, Mr Davies capped that by also becoming the local MP in 2005.

His victory, and that of Nick Ramsay at last year's assembly poll means Monmouthshire has had a Tory council, AM and MP for the past three years. This is as traditional a Tory territory as you will find on the Welsh side of the Severn Bridge, and it is no coincidence that the party has had more success here in assembly and parliamentary elections than elsewhere in Wales.

It is, perhaps, a bit of a cliche to describe this rural county as more English than Welsh.

MONMOUTHSHIRE COUNCIL
Conservatives: 24
Labour: 9
Liberal Democrats: 3
Plaid Cymru: 2
Independents: 3
Others: 2

Nevertheless, according to the Labour Force Survey, only just over half of Monmouthshire's population consider themselves Welsh.

The latest census information also shows the area has the lowest number of Welsh speakers.

It is also one of the richest parts of Wales and includes the towns of Monmouth, Abergavenny and Usk and the pretty Wye and Usk valleys, while key industries are agriculture, forestry and tourism.

But local politicians stress that, despite its wealthy reputation, it is fairly easy to find pockets of poverty.

Tory activists are quietly confident of winning two or more extra seats on Thursday, with the party regarding the over-arching local issue to be a lack of money.

Surplus school places

Tories believe they are widely seen to have done their best to keep council taxes low despite an unfair funding system.

The Tories argue the formula by which they receive money from the Welsh Assembly Government under funds the county.

Naturally, assembly government ministers have maintained that the formula reflects individual councils' needs together with the number and value of properties in their patch.

Relations with Cardiff Bay are, perhaps, more cordial on education matters and the Tory council is proud of its record on improving school buildings and the way it has dealt with the vexed question of surplus school places.

The Conservative win here in 2004 was accompanied by the election of two Plaid Cymru councillors for the first time - to the surprise of many.

Plaid puts its success then down to hard work and disillusionment with Labour, over Iraq in particular, and is hopeful it will keep on board the voters who defected to them four years ago.

Abergavenny
Labour and the Tories have had a tug-of-war here since 2001

The indications on the ground, according to Plaid, are that Labour is a spent force in this part of the world.

But, Labour councillors say they are finding that not only is there disillusionment after four years of Tory rule but that this sense of disappointment is translating into positive backing for Labour candidates.

Budget underspending at county hall, confusion and rising costs in the north of the county over plans to move a cattle market from Abergavenny to another site in the area and inconsistencies in recycling across the area are, say Labour stalwarts, encouraging voters to come home to them.

Labour admits, however, that Gordon Brown's withdrawal of the 10p income tax rate is getting some flak on the doorstep.

'Deep trouble'

The Liberal Democrats suggest evidence they are finding shows that Labour is in deep trouble.

Lib Dem scenarios involving the Conservatives losing their majority and/or the Liberal Democrats replacing Labour as the party in second place should not be dismissed, say the Lib Dems.

They agree with the Conservative administration's assertion that Monmouthshire should have a better financial deal from the assembly government but accuse the Tories of failing to work pragmatically with other parties to constructively discuss the matter with Cardiff.

Lib Dems also accuse the current council leadership of failing to build a coalition with other rural authorities to help it form a united front to lobby for change.

Three independents and two other non-aligned candidates are also standing for election to Monmouthshire County Council on 1 May.

Wherever the truth lies, within the swirl of claim and counter-claim of elections, Monmouthshire is clearly a county the Conservatives need to keep blue.

Failing to do so, at a time when Labour is in trouble at UK level, would be a major setback for David Cameron's ambition to replace Gordon Brown as prime minister.





WELSH COUNCIL ELECTIONS 2008

  Councillors Councils
Party +/- Total +/- Total
LAB -124 342 -6 2
CON 63 174 1 2
PC 31 205 -1 0
LD 21 162 0 0
OTH 9 381 0 0
NOC - - 6 18
22 of 22 councils declared.

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