Local Elections: Touch of acid erodes tranquil city campaign: Exeter's air of surface calm is reflected in an electorate not absolutely clear about where responsibility for services lies

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Indy Politics
WHAT'S wrong with Exeter? Very little on a sunny day, when locals and tourists dot the plush grass in front of the cathedral, or drift around the adjacent arc of timbered shops and tea rooms.

By and large this is a calm and fairly affluent city. There's industry at the outskirts, between Exeter and the rolling Devon countryside. But the big employers are in administration - London and Manchester Insurance, Customs and Excise. By the river, the warehouses are for leisure, converted into cafes, waterfront apartments and places to hire paddle boats.

Yet, as Thursday's city council elections approach, the political atmosphere is acid. Labour go into the contest holding 16 seats, just two more than the Tories. Two of the Tory seats are held by majorities of 9 and 72. The Liberal Democrats, currently on five, are convinced that they can steal seats from both sides.

John Holman, a Liberal Democrat councillor, spoke of the typical frustration suffered by candidates in a local election, where many voters insist on thinking nationally. 'Everyone brings up VAT on fuel,' he said. But there are local issues: the cost of water (rates charged by South West Water are pounds 105 above the national average); the possibility of closed-circuit television in the High Street to counter theft; and traffic calming measures.

In the background hangs the possibility that nobody actually knows what the city council does. Throughout last year, Exeter City Council monitored incoming telephone calls: 2,169 phoned the switchboard asking for services actually run by Devon County Council in another building. Most of the callers wanted the education department or social services, which are nothing to do with the city council. Others had queries about highways and trading standards - ditto. There were also two calls for the fire brigade.

Partly out of a desire to make its role clear, the city council gets behind events touting itself and the city. You name it, Exeter hosts its festival - the Festival of West Country Food and Drink was last month; the Rail Fair, featuring all manner of shunters, was last weekend. The Exeter Festival (art, drama, music) opens on 30 June.

Then there are the smaller, internal promotions. The Henley Research Centre worked out that a pub customer who drinks at lunchtime and in the evenings is worth pounds 788 per year. Dissatisfied customers are reckoned to tell 13 people about their experiences. So one unhappy customer can cause pounds 10,000 of lost business. Impressed and terrified, the council launched the 'Customer Care Awards' which, according to the rubric, set out to 'highlight Exeter's reputation as a friendly place to eat, shop and do business'.

Some criticise this kind of grandstanding. John Greaves, who runs a shop opposite the cathedral, serving all-day cream teas, said: 'People here are generally pro the council, but there are grievances about them lavishing money on refurbishment.'

Meanwhile, 600 people have signed a petition against developing Matford Marshes, which lies in a green protection area. Labour wants it for industry, the Tories are divided and the Liberal Democrats oppose the scheme. 'I've never known anyone survive on grass except cows,' said Chester Long, a Labour councillor and city council leader. 'I'm keen as mustard on retaining the environment, but I have to balance that with the demand for jobs.'

Mr Long is also mildly sceptical about petitions: 'I bet you a tenner I could take a blank piece of paper out there this afternoon and get 100 signatures on it.'

Driving out to the new athletics track to look at work on the new indoor bowling rink taking place beyond the new rugby pitches, Mr Long spent most of the car journey waving and shouting to people through the open window - the manager of the sports arena, a traffic warden, his mother-in-law - and offering nuggets of wisdom based on 10 years on the city council. 'Everybody wants a play area, until you suggest putting it beside their front door.'

Mr Long said that Labour inherited a pounds 23m debt from the Tories in 1984 and have pegged it at that level. He gestured expansively at the athletics track, built on the old county showground and opened two years ago. According to Mr Holman, the project 'was given all-party support, though you wouldn't think it to read some of the election material'.

While the politicians campaign against each other, in Alphington, to the south of the city, Ron Thomas, a retired harbourmaster, is campaigning against his next-door neighbour's 60ft radio aerial. It belongs to Tony Downing, a radio ham, who has the necessary permission to erect it. Mr Thomas claims it interrupts his television signal and affects the radio and telephone. And just recently, he has become concerned that Mr Downing's transmissions might be upsetting his pacemaker.

Mr Downing was unavailable for comment but he claims that his gear has passed Department of Trade and Industry tests.

Nevertheless, Mr Thomas has submitted an 80-signature petition to the city council. He is after what everyone in Exeter would wish and which many already appear to have - a life without interference.

(Photograph omitted)