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Politics: Battle over building homes is key to the rural vote

Local elections: Booming Basingstoke gives a clue to Tory fortunes, writes David Walker, Social Policy Editor

BASINGSTOKE is booming. The Hampshire town regularly comes near the top of the list of places with least unemployment. The shopping malls are bustling. And if there is a local issue in Thursday's council elections - as opposed to a beauty contest for the three national parties contesting seats - it is how to cope with Basingstoke's prosperity and burgeoning demand for building land.

If anywhere, this is where Tory revival has to begin. The other week Tory leader William Hague visited the Oakley ward - currently held by the Liberal Democrats - in order to assert Tory fidelity to the idea of protecting the green acres from rampant housebuilding. (That it's a faith they have found only since last May is another story, as is the fact that the Tories control Hampshire County Council, which compiles the "structure plan" allocating Basingstoke a target for accommodating new housing.)

Locally, the Tories see planning as a good issue. "They" want to build in rural areas, says Tory leader Keith Brant ominously. Liberal Democrat Paula Baker, leader of the council, accepts that there will be development around Basingstoke. But it should be a local decision as to where. "This is a young town, there is a rising demand from families who are looking for homes. We want to provide for our own - the problem is that commuters also want to live here to reach London."

Basingstoke, adds Labour's Jack Evans, has no "brownfield" sites within its boundaries. He blames the previous Tory government for imposing so many houses on Hampshire. "What is going to happen? Somebody somewhere has got to come up with some ideas."

But will planning swing votes as well as generate lively local argument? Some 20 seats on Basingstoke and Deane council are being contested. As of now the Tories are the largest single party with 22 members but the LDs have 17 and Labour 14 and a power sharing arrangement between them has kept the Tories out of office. No one expects this basic arithmetic to change though Mr Evans, for Labour, hopes that if the LDs do lose a handful of seats to the Tories, Labour will then be able to claim the leadership of the authority.

Paula Baker thinks that the larger Liberal Democrat presence in the House of Commons since last May will be helpful by raising the party's local profile. They need to, asserts Tory Keith Brant, "locally all they have done is cycle tracks and things - we will show people we can administer". But he is not sanguine about the council changing hands, barring some great surge by Basingstoke's handful of independents shifting the balance of power. Labour's view is that Tony Blair's success in securing agreement in Ulster has further advanced the party's popularity on the doorstep.

Basingstoke is, unofficially, a Tory target area. What that means, equally unofficially, is that if the party cannot add to its strength this time round, William Hague's leadership is having little effect on party fortunes. According to Michael Tickner, Tory leader in the outer London borough of Bromley, they are on their way. His people are recording swings of 20 per cent in their direction in some wards, though he admits they are solid areas and the real test will come in marginal areas.

London's referendum will, he fears, "muddy the waters": it has been a Labour public relations campaign, and a waste of public money. The Tories are also asking for a yes vote in favour of a London mayor and assembly. He hints that were the no campaigners to be a bit more active, they might secure support.

The message Mr Tickner is trying to ram home is council tax. If electors would only look elsewhere, he says, they would see how "frighteningly expensive" is rule by Labour and the Liberal Democrats.