Conservatives battling to survive in reborn Bristol 2/48pt inyes

Elections 1995:Tories adopt local identity to distance themselves from national party in advance of new unitary authority returning most powers to the city from unloved Avon

BY WILL BENNETT

Avon is one of the least-loved offspring of the 1974 local government reforms. Its death on April Fools' Day next year will go largely unmourned in Bristol and the surrounding areas which comprise this artificial county.

On that day Bristol will regain most of the powers which it enjoyed for 501 years, but it will not have the county status that it once had. The feeling in the city is that once again reorganisation has gone off at half-cock.

Avon will survive as a ghost because Bristol, although it will become a unitary authority, will not be a county borough. The name Avon will continue in the police and emergency services and other joint authorities.

"The public never really took to Avon and when surveys were done the overwhelming result was that people wanted the county of Avon to go," Graham Robertson, the Labour leader of Bristol city council, said.

"Clearly we welcome the restoration of unitary status, but the disappointing thing was that we did not extend our boundaries. I think that reorganisation has been handled pretty badly. Nobody really sat down and thought it through."

What Bristol wanted was unitary status for the whole conurbation. People in the outer areas vetoed the idea when they were consulted by the Local Government Commission.

"The reason for this was that that people outside the present boundaries of Bristol did not like the fact that they would have to pay much higher council tax if they were incorporated," Sir Bob Wall, leader of the Conservative opposition on the city council, said.

So the boundaries of Bristol will end half way down suburban streets and the once independent county will find its powers constrained on transport, strategic planning and the emergency services by committees comprising the four successor unitary authorities.

On 4 May the city will confirm its traditional Labour allegiance by a massive majority. All councillors on the present district council are up for election and next year they will form the new unitary authority. At present Labour has 41 seats to 19 Conservatives and eight Liberal Democrats. This time Labour should win at least 50 seats with the Tories struggling to keep the Liberal Democrats in third place and possibly ending up with as few as four councillors.

Mr Robertson, 66, an old-style right-wing Labour city boss and a former tobacco workers' union official, said: "It is mostly national issues which are being raised on the doorstep, particularly the economy and unemployment."

The Tories have only one candidate in six of the 34 two-member wards and for the second year running are calling themselves Bristol Conservatives. In two seats they have added the name of the wards.

Sir Bob, the local Conservative leader since 1974, said: "We have always been a fairly independent bunch here and up until the early 1970s we stood as the Bristol Citizens Party. We don't reject the national party. We are pretty loyal and we have had to take a lot of stick on behalf of the national party and we are content to do that. Hopefully we will get into double figures but with the current problems of the Government we might fall short of that. We can't gainsay that the Government is unpopular but locally we have not been able to find evidence of a huge Labour lead."

The nightmare scenario for the Tories is that the Liberal Democrats might push them into third place, sending them into the kind of electoral decline witnessed in Liverpool.

Led by Charles Boney, a teacher who is hoping to oust William Waldegrave, the Minister of Agriculture, from Bristol West at the next general election, the Liberal Democrats have built up an effective election machine there and in some wards in the east of the city. Mr Boney said: "We would be expect to be the official opposition after the election and we think that there needs to be a proper opposition to Labour in Bristol."

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