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Labour and Conservatives clash over council tax at Croydon Advertiser election debate

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LEADERS of the two dominant political parties in Croydon traded blows over council tax at an election debate organised by the Advertiser. The Conservatives have made attacking Labour's history of council tax increases the focus of their campaign ahead of the local elections next Thursday (May 22). The row had been simmering for several weeks, but boiled over during our debate at Fairfield Halls on Tuesday night, when Labour leader Tony Newman attacked an "outrageous" front page wrap-around advert, taken out in another local paper, accusing his party of plotting a 27 per cent tax hike. Cllr Newman, who is trying to avoid a third straight election defeat, reiterated Labour's manifesto pledge to freeze council tax in 2016, before making a further promise. "If Labour is elected there would be no council tax increase above inflation - ever," he said, adding that - contrary to the Tory attack advert - any rise above 1.99 per cent would force the council to hold a referendum. Conservative council leader Mike Fisher called on voters to "judge people on what they do, not what they say". "I remember Tony's predecessor making the same promises before the 2002 election, a year later council tax went up 27 per cent. They more than doubled it in the 12 years they were in power. "If you're looking for council tax to be kept under control, there's only one way to vote." The two main parties in Croydon were joined on the panel by leading candidates from their three leading opponents - the Green Party, Ukip and the Liberal Democrats. Peter Staveley, branch chairman for Croydon Central and South, said Ukip have a "good chance" of a winning a seat because the council poll coincides with the European Elections. Mr Staveley told the audience of Advertiser readers, who had submitted questions to be put to the panel, that a Ukip council would "return control of Croydon town hall to local people". He said politics in Croydon had become "theatre", where councillors "shout at each other" and vote on party lines. In contrast Ukip councillors would "listen to residents and businesses and will vote accordingly". Answering a question about the lack of progress in London Road since the riots in August 2011, Tracey Hague, representing the Green Party, called for action. She said: "When will buildings demolished during riots be rebuilt? They are a scar on the face of the town reminding everyone [what happened] and meaning those who suffered cannot move on." Cllr Fisher, who was confronted by a resident who questioned his support for those who struggled to secure compensation following the disorder, said work to regenerate London Road would finally begin in August. "Perhaps it hasn't moved quickly enough but it is coming," he added. Mrs Hague, who is one of 70 candidates the Greens are standing in Croydon, said the party had a six-point plan to tackle fly-tipping, perhaps the biggest issue of the election campaign. Like Labour, the Green Party want to introduce a 24-hour hotline, but also increase opening hours at recycling centres and provide free collection of bulky waste for up to seven items a year, Mrs Hague said. The panellists - other than Cllr Fisher - described fly-tipping as an "epidemic" and attacked the Conservative council's record on both clearing the rubbish and prosecuting those responsible. Liberal Democrat John Jefkins, who repeatedly clashed with Cllr Fisher, blamed the problem on the council's adoption of a fortnightly black bin collection. "There are parts of the borough where it's not sensible because people haven't got the room outside their properties," he said. Both he and Mr Staveley said their parties would return to weekly collections. Cllr Newman stopped short of making an explicit promise, while Mrs Hague said the Greens would make the system "clearer" but would not reverse the decision. Cllr Fisher defended his party's record, citing a recently created app which allows residents to report fly-tipping and a £200,000 investment in CCTV cameras. The Labour leader followed up his attack by questioning his opposite number over the council's approach to affordable housing, describing as "risible" the 15 per cent target set for hundreds of homes being created by the £1 billion Westfield/Hammerson development. Cllr Fisher replied: "Tony knows, only too well, that if we had imposed a 30 per cent threshold on developments in Croydon, none of them would have taken place. We would have had no affordable housing in the last four years." He then announced that a Conservative administration would introduce a policy which meant people would have to have a "link" to Croydon for at least five years before being eligible for a council house. As the debate drew to a close, Advertiser editor Glenn Ebrey, who chaired the event, asked each candidate to sum up their party's platform. Mr Staveley said Ukip's would "allow local democracy to flourish" by adopting a policy that meant residents' petitions would trigger a referendum if they passed a certain number of signatures. The Lib Dems would bring greater scrutiny to the Town Hall, Mr Jefkins said. "We need more eyes watching these guys," he added. Mrs Hague chose to end her pitch by addressing the extraction of shale gas, or "fracking". "It will bring house prices, not energy prices, down," she said. Cllr Newman said a Labour council would be "transparent, would publish everything and end the culture of secrecy when it comes to council meetings". "Our day one priority," he added. "would be to absolutely clean up the borough." Cllr Fisher said: "If you are looking for efficiency and for council tax to be kept under control, there's only one way to vote in this election."For more on the debate and to see the Advertiser's alternative election guide, see this week's paper, out on Friday (May 16)

Labour and Conservatives clash over council tax at Croydon Advertiser election debate


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