It will be safety first

Election time is about to hit the North-East once more. Ross Smith and Will Green look at the issues at stake.

Election time is about to hit the North-East once more. Ross Smith and Will Green look at the issues at stake.

Polling station

The leaflets have been printed, the rosettes dusted down and the shoes freshly re-soled in readiness for hours tramping the streets.

It's election time again, and thousands of candidates are about to embark on the campaign trail desperate for North-East votes.

The fact an election is taking place in every part of the region makes these the biggest polls since the 2005 general election - and the biggest test of how the parties' fortunes have changed since then.

Conventional wisdom based on national trends would suggest the Tories have soared, Labour has collapsed, and the Liberal Democrats have stagnated.

But this pattern was not replicated in the North-East last year. And elections in devolved institutions in Scotland and Wales mean much of the national focus will be diverted from English council polls - which may make people more likely to choose who they want to run local services, rather than cast a popularity vote for national leaders.

In the metropolitan areas of Tyne and Wear and the Tees Valley, voters will select members of unitary councils, which exercise the full gamut of local authority powers, including over education, highways, transport and social services.

Voters in County Durham and Northumberland, however, will be electing district council representatives, who control none of the above. In fact, they might control nothing at all within two years if an overhaul of local government which could see districts abolished goes ahead.

However, two issues likely to be among the biggest in the campaign are governed by all the councils up for election - anti-social behaviour and housing. Local government has been given a key role in tackling low level crime, underlined when four North-East authorities were designated `Respect' action zones in January.

That means voters can - and will - hold councillors to blame where problems remain unresolved.

In areas where Labour is attempting to wrest back control from the Liberal Democrats - Newcastle and Durham City - they will play up the fact Lib Dem MPs voted against a string of measures to tackle the problem in Parliament.

But Lib Dems signalled several weeks ago they will fight fire with fire on the issue, by putting community safety top of their own campaign priorities.

Provision of decent and affordable family housing has steadily climbed the political agenda over recent years. In Northumberland, the challenge is to provide homes for local families who increasingly find themselves priced out of a market inflated by families escaping Newcastle and wealthy city-dwellers snapping up holiday cottages.

Success or otherwise in doing this will be a hot topic for debate when the Liberal Democrats take on Conservatives in Berwick and independents in Alnwick.

In Tyneside, there is a desire to tackle the same problem from the other end, by providing better family homes which will keep people in the conurbation. However, schemes for doing so have not proved universally popular, with demolition proposals designed to make way for new houses in Walker in Newcastle and Bensham in Gateshead attracting fierce opposition from some residents in the areas affected.

Nevertheless, all candidates know their efforts locally can be undermined by senior party colleagues' actions at national level. Labour's foot soldiers last year were given the unenviable task of knocking on voters' doors while their television screens broadcast news of the foreign prisoners release scandal, John Prescott's affair with a civil servant, and Health Secretary Patricia Hewitt being savaged over NHS reforms.

But while these events caused Labour to haemorrhage seats nationally last May, it held its own in its North-East heartland.

Conservative leader David Cameron's response was to appoint shadow trade and industry secretary Alan Duncan as shadow minister for Tyneside, with the task of re-establishing the Conservatives as a force in the area.

His verve for that task has been commendable, with frequent trips up the east coast main line, but the impact on the public remains to be seen.

The party's local government spokesman Eric Pickles and shadow foreign secretary William Hague have both admitted it faces a tough task building from a base of no councillors in Newcastle and Gateshead.

It will have greater hopes in North Tyneside, where a couple of seats changing hands could leave Labour's elected mayor John Harrison as a lame duck, and Sunderland, where an encouraging result could pave the way for a serious attempt to snatch a parliamentary seat at the next general election.

Deputy party chairman Michael Bates has even suggested it could make inroads in Easington or Wear Valley - though this seems somewhat ambitious in the heart of coal mining country where bitterness over 1980s pit closures still runs deep.

While the appointment of Mr Cameron has seen the Tories' poll ratings soar, new Lib Dem leader Sir Menzies Campbell has not had the same impact.

While the party appears to have cemented its pre-eminent position in Newcastle, whether it can re-assert itself in north Northumberland or build on a bedrock of seats in areas such as Gateshead and Wansbeck is uncertain, with credit for opposition to the Iraq war running out four years after the event.

Senior Newcastle Lib Dem Greg Stone admitted crime and environmental issues are raised much more often on the doorsteps than foreign policy.

Labour would dearly love to win back Durham City. But it knows that, in the main, it will be a achievement to emulate last year's success in clinging on to the bulk of its North-East seats, particularly if voters treat these mid-term elections as a chance to kick the Government.

This year, that would be a case of kicking Tony Blair when he is down. Whatever the result, it is likely he will announce his resignation straight after these polls if he is to leave Downing Street by his self-imposed September deadline. (He may, though, wait a few days until Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness go into government together in Northern Ireland, allowing him to bow out on a high note.)

So it will be Gordon Brown - assuming he succeeds Mr Blair - who is left to pick up the pieces of next month's results when they are announced. In many parts of the North-East, it will not be until the day after the polls this year that the ballot boxes are opened. Their contents will tell Mr Brown precisely where he must recover from.


David Whetstone
Culture Editor
Graeme Whitfield
Business Editor
Mark Douglas
Newcastle United Editor
Stuart Rayner
Sports Writer