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 on Thursday.
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 advert, taken out in another local paper, accusing his party of planning 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 a Labour is elected there would be no council tax increase above inflation – ever," he said, adding that – contrary to the Tory attack adverts – any rise above 1.99 per cent would force the council to hold a referendum.
Conservative council leader Mike Fisher said he "judged 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 clash was, however, largely an anomaly during what was a surprisingly amicable debate between the two main parties in Croydon and their three leading opponents – the Green Party, Ukip and the Liberal Democrats.
Peter Staveley, Ukip branch chairman for Croydon Central and South, said his party has a "good chance" of a winning a seat because the council poll coincides with the European Parliament elections.
Mr Staveley told the audience of Advertiser readers, who had submitted the questions 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 can't 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.
Mrs Hague, who is one of 70 Green candidates 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 Greens 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 his Tory rival, blamed the problem on the council's adoption of 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 cuts.
Cllr Fisher defended his record, citing a recently-created app which allows residents to report fly-tipping and a £200,000 investment in CCTV cameras.
He told the audience that, contrary to Labour's claims, the council had only been offered one-third of the sum quoted by Communities Secretary Eric Pickles to return to a weekly system.
Cllr Newman 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 the up to 600 homes to be created by the £1billion 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."
Cllr Fisher then announced that a Conservative administration would introduce a policy which meant people will have to have had a "link" to Croydon for 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 why voters should opt for them.
Mr Staveley said Ukip would "allow local democracy to flourish" by adopting a policy that would mean residents' petitions would trigger a referendum if they passed a certain threshold.
The Lib Dems, Mr Jefkins said, would bring greater scrutiny to the Town Hall, adding: "We need more eyes watching these guys."
Mrs Hague chose to end her pitch by addressing the extraction of shale gas, dubbed "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."