Tories' hopes ride on 'local' heroes heroes

The council elections: Major targets Brown and Ashdown attacks 'untrustworthy' rivals as campaigns gather pace
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Indy Politics
Tony Blair may have invented "new" Labour. But the Conservatives in Solihull, the lastoutpost of Tory power in England's metropolitan boroughs, have their own secret weapon. In next week's elections the voters of Solihull are being urged to support "local" Tories.

The leader of the Liberal Democrat group on the council, John Windmill, says he knows why: "They [the Tories] will not find the 'feel-good factor' Conservative Central Office has ordered. We've only found the 'feel-bad' factor."

Feeling bad in Solihull might not be that bad. It is a smart, prosperous and confident borough that Conservatives once regarded as "natural Tory".

Since John de Birmingham sold off Solihull and its manor in the 14th century to a local bishop so he could concentrate on building up his other venture, Birmingham, the borough has struggled to maintain its identity from its bigger neighbour.

The NEC might be regarded as being in Birmingham, but it falls within the boundaries of Solihull. Locals think it should be called the SEC. Likewise the growing "Solihull" international airport.

In reality, ubiquitous wealth in the borough is an illusion. The area mirrors the material divisions of Britain, with a rich south (population 140,000) and a poorer north (60,000). While unemployment is low in the south, pockets of disadvantage are not uncommon in the north.

The borough's Conservatives regard themselves as old-style patrician Tories, and point out the poorer north receives the lion's share of social service budgets. Forget the image of Tory Scrooges; Solihull has consistently spent above the Goervnments standard assessment.

The Tory group leader, Ken Meeson, can reel off awards for the council's work. Solihull is Britain's cleanest town, he says, praised by the Audit Commission for low costs and quality service. In January the Tories tripled their majority in a ward by-election, and come next week, he says, the Conservatives will be still be in control.

But loss of control for the Tories will reflect the party's national fortunes, and next week Solihull's "local" Conservatives may heartily wish that they could distance from themselves from Westminster.

Solihull council

Con 20; Lab 15; LD 9; Ind Rate-Payers 5; Ind 1.

Control: Conservative & Rate-Payers "compact"

All seats to be re-elected