Over-governed county wages insular battle: In the first of a series previewing the council elections on 6 May, Will Bennett reports on the fight for the Isle of Wight, a Liberal Democrat stronghold

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Indy Politics
THE BATTLE for control of Isle of Wight County Council is the election that nobody wanted. The politicians and the voters will have to go through it all again in a year's time.

The island, with its gentle, rolling countryside and old-fashioned holiday resorts, is a political oddity. It is England's only offshore county, is the only county council with a Liberal Democrat majority and is at the forefront of the next round of local government reorganisation.

Its affairs are controlled at the moment by the county council and two district councils with a combined total of 103 elected members for a population of 130,000. Barry Field, the local Conservative MP, once described the island as having 'more mayors than Toytown'.

On 1 April 1995, these three councils will merge into one unitary authority and, true to the tradition of acrimonious local politics, a row has started over what this should be called. Elections for the new, 46- strong council will take place in 1994.

This may relieve the island of its unwanted status as the most over-governed place in England and end the interminable demarcation disputes between the county and the districts, but it has also injected an air of weariness into the present campaign.

The Liberal Democrats, with 25 seats to 16 Tories and two independents, have controlled the county council since 1981, after victory in the island's parliamentary constituency. The Conservatives have regained the latter, although last year their majority was only 1,827. Bolstered by a solid majority and an unpopular government, the Liberal Democrats should retain the Isle of Wight comfortably. But as both parties admit, the result may be much closer.

The Tories, led by Roy Westmore, 67, a veteran local politician who runs a garage and an undertakers, are buoyed up by a by-election victory last November when they captured a seat from the Liberal Democrats with a 22 per cent swing.

The Liberal Democrats, whose leader Morris Barton, 52, is head proof reader with a local newspaper, admit that after 12 years in power they may lose some seats. He said: 'We have become the establishment.'

The main disputes between the parties are over council spending, the quality of services and the way that some of them have been privatised.

The ideological battleground is most clearly defined over the privatisation of services such as residential care, school catering and road maintenance. The Liberal Democrats have hived these off to island-based companies often consisting of the council's former employees. The Conservatives favour more open competitive tendering.

Disputes are conducted against the background of a troubled island economy. Tourism in quaint resorts such as Sandown and Shanklin has been declining for years and almost half the manufacturing workforce is employed by just five companies. Unemployment is 15 per cent and 26.4 per cent of the population are pensioners, compared with the UK average of 17.9 per cent.

A recent report by the Isle of Wight Development Board argued: 'The Isle of Wight is perceived as part of the relatively prosperous South-east. But because it is separated by a strip of water. . . insularity has a huge impact on business and tourism and dominates the whole economy.'

The report argued the case for the island being granted Assisted Area status by the Government. Mr Barton believes that this help and more autonomy are vital. 'We have been recognised as a region by the European Community and would like to build on that.'

For the election on 6 May, the Labour Party is putting up 12 candidates, its biggest effort for years. It may win one or two seats from the Liberal Democrats. But in an island where even the two main party leaders are distant cousins and many seats contain little more than 2,000 electors, many votes are cast for personal rather than party reasons. Mr Westmore said: 'There are no secrets about who supports who here.'

(Photograph omitted)

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