Newbury By-Election: Lib Dems admit figures muddled: Error over town's empty office space hands propaganda victory to Tories

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Indy Politics
THE Liberal Democrats were forced to correct their by-election press guide last night after discovering that its claims about empty industrial and office space in Newbury were overstated by as much as 50 per cent, writes Patricia Wynn Davies.

The press guide for David Rendel, the Liberal Democrat candidate, says figures for November 1992 reveal that 58 per cent of industrial and warehousing units in the constituency were vacant, along with 42 per cent of offices.

It also says that Newbury has become the 'negative equity capital of the South'. The party admitted yesterday that the latter came from newspaper reports, while the Liberal Democrat-controlled Newbury District Council, which compiled the empty property figures, accepted that it was wrong.

The true figures are 7.7 per cent for industrial and warehousing unit floorspace, and 36 per cent for offices, making an average for all kinds of commercial property of around 11 per cent.

The revelation could prove highly embarrassing. The Tories have already accused them of deliberately 'talking down' the economic recovery. Paddy Ashdown, the Liberal Democrat leader, has accused Julian Davidson, the Tory candidate, of talking it up to win votes.

Adrian Barker, an official in Newbury council's chief executive's department, took responsibility for the mistake. He said that it arose through a misinterpretation of figures showing the breakdown of empty premises.

Yesterday's Liberal Democrat news conference saw Mr Rendel declare qualified support for John MacGregor's plans for toll roads: 'I think there is a case for road pricing in some towns and cities,' he said. While abhorring school testing, he revealed that he did not back the teachers' boycott.

The Tories' conference saw Mr Davidson fending off attacks over VAT and his Yeovil general election campaign pledge to prevent 'tax hikes' - and the prompting skills of his by-election minder, Gerry Malone, a deputy chairman of the Conservative Party and the MP for Winchester. On Tuesday, Mr Davidson said: 'All this business about breaking promises (not to extend VAT) is really, I think, nonsense.' Yesterday he pledged to do 'everything I possibly could' to prevent a further extension of the tax.

In a lengthy reply to (unanswered) questioning over whether he would vote against the Government on such an extension, Mr Malone could be seen muttering beside him on the platform. What was being muttered became apparent as Mr Davidson declared: 'I will take no lectures from the Liberals on this.'

The eight candidates so far declared are Julian Davidson (C); David Rendel (Lib Dem); Steve Billcliffe (Lab); Jim Wallis (Green); Dr Alan Sked (Anti-Federalist); Lord David Sutch (Monster Raving Loony 30 Years Party); Colin Palmer (21st Century Party), and Stephen Martin (Commoners).

General election result: Judith Chaplin (C) 37,135; David Rendel (Lib Dem) 24,778; Richard Hall (Lab) 3,962; Jim Wallis (Green) 539. C maj 12,357.

(Photograph omitted)