IT’S too close to call in Winchester.
With only a little over a week until the polls on May 22, no-one knows who may snatch the advantage on the knife-edge city council.
Currently the Conservatives have 27 seats, the same as the Liberal Democrats, with Labour on two and the Independents on one.
The Tories have control but only as a minority party. They are defending ten seats to the Lib Dems’ nine.
The key question is whether the UK Independence Party will make an impact. In the past their votes have come from disgruntled Conservatives, but polls now show their support is broader.
This year the council elections coincide with the European polls and that should benefit UKIP, with the widespread publicity for their leader Nigel Farage. UKIP is fighting 11 of the 19 contests, but only two of the tightly-contested six city wards.
Dominic Hiscock, standing for the Lib Dems in the St Bartholomew ward, which covers the city centre, Hyde and Abbotts Barton, said: “I think UKIP are taking votes from everyone. “I don’t see how they can get enough to take any seats or even affect very much.”
But Ruth Smith, standing for UKIP in St Luke ward, said: “There’s general dissatisfaction with the other three parties. “It is a mixture of things: Europe, immigration, expenses and a feeling we are not getting the truth from the political parties. “The mood is that we need change.”
On the stump, candidates are hearing a myriad of issues; from potholes and speeding cars, to housing development, a bad thing in some areas, and the lack of new housing, a bad thing in others.
For years, Barton Farm, the 2,000-home development, hung over Winchester politics. That scheme is going ahead but housing remains potentially contentious in other places including Alresford and Bishop’s Waltham.
Another recipient of protest votes has been the Green party. As in 2012, they are concentrating on St Bartholomews. In 2012, the last time the elections were held, the Green candidate Michael Wilks polled nearly 400 votes.
The main Winchester controversy this year has been the Conservative proposal to build a new leisure centre on part of River Park.
Cllr Hiscock said opinion was divided, with some people fearful the sports centre could relocate to Bar End.
The St Paul ward will also be interesting. It is a battleground between Tories and Lib Dems. An added factor this time is that former councillor Karen Barratt, who made her name as an anti-phone mast campaigner in Byron Avenue in the 2000s, is standing as an independent.
Labour is on the up, with a strong local candidate in the St John and All Saints ward which covers the council estates of Winnall and Highcliffe. Clive Gosling, a former retained firefighter and builder, lives in the ward and has strong local roots.
Should he win, it would be the first time since 2004 that Labour has held all three seats in the ward. Labour leader Chris Pines said he was “quietly confident.”
Senior Conservative Stephen Godfrey said his party had run the council well: “We have taken some difficult decisions around raising charges and cutbacks. “Some things have fallen our way, like coming out of recession. But we have managed to show leadership in the right direction.”