Local election campaigns focus on services

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The Conservatives and Liberal Democrats mounted separate attacks on Labour's "failure" on public services yesterday when they launched their campaigns for the local authority elections on 2 May.

Iain Duncan Smith, the Tory leader, predicted that the polls would mark the start of a "fightback" by his party after its general election rout last year.

Launching his party's campaign in Bradford, Mr Duncan Smith admitted that previous Tory governments had "over-centralised" and taken power away from local authorities, but argued that Tony Blair's administration had centralised more than any other. He said: "We cannot afford to repeat that mistake if we are to deliver genuine improvements in our public services and to our quality of life. We have to be prepared to believe in local government as a principal strand of party policy."

Only one-third of the 22 million people entitled to vote on 2 May are likely to do so, and Mr Duncan Smith said a low turn-out was due to the fact that "not enough" was at stake.

He said: "We know that local residents' daily lives are marred by problems like crime, vandalism, lack of discipline in our schools and a failing transport system ... We want to show that the people that are most vulnerable are being treated very badly by this Government." The Tories hope to gain at least 100 seats and some neutral experts believe they could win an extra 300.

Charles Kennedy, the Liberal Democrat leader, said local authorities should be "set free" to provide high-quality public services to meet the needs of local people. He said: "More investment for local councils will allow proper investment in police and schools."

Mr Kennedy said people had become disillusioned and disappointed with Labour nationally and locally. He called for the council tax to be replaced by a local income tax.

The Liberal Democrats are seeking to consolidate gains from the Tories in previous local elections.

Labour, which launched its campaign last week, claimed yesterday that Tory plans to reduce public spending would translate into £7bn of cuts in services provided by councils.