Election '97: Car-park fees could tip fate of Monmouth

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Roger Evans, the Tory sitting member, and Labour's Huw Edwards are having their third head-to-head election battle in the last six years in Monmouth.

Mr Edwards won the seat for Labour in 1991, in a by-election brought about by the death of Tory MP Sir John Stradling Thomas, but Mr Evans won it back for the Conservatives in the 1992 general election. Other candidates are Liberal Democrat Mark Williams, Plaid Cymru's Alan Cotton and Niall Warry for the Referendum Party.

With a Conservative majority of 3,204, this is the 10th most marginal seat in Wales, and one that Labour could have realistic hopes of recapturing - it's their 41st target seat nationally. But there are local issues that have suddenly made Mr Edwards' task more difficult.

The controversial introduction by the Labour-dominated Monmouthshire County Council of car-park charges and residents' car-parking permits in the constituency's three main towns of Abergavenny, Chepstow and Monmouth, is seen as a new local tax and has been fiercely resisted. Erstwhile committed Labour voters have told the local newspaper, the Abergavenny Chronicle, that they would not vote Labour again because of these changes.

"I was disgusted by the way the introduction of car-parking charges was steam-rollered through by the county council," said one Labour member who has resigned over the issue. "I will not be voting Labour again," he said.

Mr Evans and Mr Williams have campaigned quite strongly on this issue and have pressed Mr Edwards for a public statement on where he stands. The Labour candidate appears to be trying to distance himself from the issue by keeping quiet, while targeting another local issue to his advantage. This is a proposal by the Benefits Agency to close 58 offices in Wales, one of which is in Abergavenny and Roger Evans, as a Social Security minister, is being targeted as the person responsible for the proposals.

The Monmouth constituency is a mainly rural area, known as the "Gateway to Wales", but it is anyone's guess where the influential farming vote will go - if anywhere. "Some farmers are so disillusioned that they won't vote at all," David Maddocks, Monmouthshire National Farmers' Union county chairman, said. "A large number think there is a total lack of understanding of the industry by politicians across the board."

Both Liberal Democrats and Labour have been wooing the farming vote at Abergavenny cattle market in recent weeks, but according to Neil Smith, Gwent development officer for the Farmers' Union of Wales, "apathy is safe". In his opinion, this could get Labour in, if traditional Tory voters among the farmers could not bring themselves to vote for any other party. "After all, the Tories have done no favours for farming over the last four years and farmers have traditionally fared better under a Socialist government," he said.

Across the border in Brecon and Radnorshire, the Welsh Office minister Jonathan Evans faces an extremely difficult task in hanging on to his seat with a majority of just 130. It is the Liberal Democrats' top target seat and they are confident of regaining it with just a 0.15 per cent swing needed. Richard Livsey, who lost the seat to Mr Evans after a recount in 1992, is the Liberal Democrats' man again, while Powys county councillor Chris Mann is standing for Labour. Both parties claim they are on target to win, but if John Major's visit to Brecon last week in support of Mr Evans does not convince the voters, it seems likely that Mr Livsey will regain the seat.