Local Council Elections 1994: Rural outpost struggles to stay free of party control: Councillors in one of the last districts run by independents fear the arrival of political influence may not be far away. Martin Whitfield reports

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Indy Politics
THE INDEPENDENTS of rural South Herefordshire have a feeling their days are numbered as one of the last remaining outposts of non-political council control.

Their demise may not come on 5 May, but many believe it is only a matter of time before the district council bows to the inevitability of party political influence.

'We are here to administer rather than deliver,' admitted Edward Vines, the independent chairman of the council close to the Welsh border. 'You have to understand the area, the geography, the chapel, that sort of thing. There is a long history of independence, a lot of retired people and not a lot of competition for seats.

'If we had political control, there would be more direction, but I don't know if it would be a happier place.'

Elections will be held for only seven of the 13 seats due to be contested next week as six candidates have been returned unopposed.

Anne Carter, leader of the independent group of about 29, is one of those who will not have to face the ballot box. As if to emphasise the complete lack of conventional political labels in the council, which forms a ring around the Liberal Democrat-controlled Hereford City Council, Mrs Carter's group includes both Liberal Democrats and Conservatives.

The remaining 10 members are similarly diverse, and include more independents and a Liberal Democrat. There are no party whips, no party machines and no election manifestos.

'We are two groups of like- minded people. We just do what we feel is best,' said Mrs Carter. Any antagonism is more likely to be personal than political.

The main issues confronting the council are traffic, the growth of industrialised agriculture, and the lack of affordable housing for local young people.

Disagreements, for example over the pedestrianisation of the centre of Ross-on-Wye, the largest centre of population in the district with 6,500 residents, do not form on political lines. However, the first hint of change is expected immediately after the election as the Liberal Democrats, influenced by the party in Hereford city, are likely to form a more disciplined group.

Roland Summers, a retired headmaster who has been re- elected unopposed in Burmarsh ward, is one of the council's Liberal Democrats and believes his party could double its representation to 8 of the 39 seats. He is looking forward to an end to constant argument among all 39 members of the council over every decision.

'I think as time goes by it will happen . . . I hope it will be a good thing as long as we are responsive to what people want,' he said.

More ambitious targets for the district are being set by David Short, Liberal Democrat leader of the city council. The Liberal Democrats took control of Hereford in 1979 and hold 22 out of 27 seats. The continued influence of the independents remains a mystery to him.

'I find it difficult to understand. Trying to oppose independents is like banging your head against cotton wool,' he said.

'I'd much rather fight a right- wing Tory or a left-wing socialist. I don't think it detracts from the rugged individualism of the country person to vote for a candidate who has a political label.'

South Herefordshire council's offices, a former police headquarters, are not in the district but in Hereford city. A joint submission to the Local Government Commission, made this week, proposes to reunite the rural and city districts, plus Leominster, into a one unitary authority for the whole of Herefordshire.

If approved, Mr Vines, 58, a farmer who sat as an independent on the old Ross and Whitchurch Rural District Council before 1974, concedes that it would mean the end of independent politics in South Herefordshire. Until then, he will continue as an independent. 'I believe there is a requirement and an obligation on those with the time and energy to give something to their community.'

(Photograph omitted)