WITH the promise of free rat catchers, the Liberal Democrats are hoping to snare some extra votes and come snapping at the heels of the ruling Conservatives in one Hampshire borough.

As the battle between the Tories and the Lib Dems continues to hot up in Fareham, every vote in the biennial local elections will count.

After nine years at the helm, the Conservatives are keeping their fingers crossed that they retain the majority of seats on May 1, when half the seats on Fareham Borough Council will be decided for the next four years.

But with policies to smarten up Fareham and make it a place to be proud of, the Lib Dems are hoping to steal some crucial votes. They currently occupy nine seats to the Tories' 22.

Both parties are united on some issues, each promising better town centre parking, a tough fight against potential gravel extraction and fewer housing developments.

But their policies on rubbish collections and pest control differ.

Waste The council introduced fortnightly rubbish and recycling collections in 2005 to boost recycling rates.

Council leader of nine years, Sean Woodward, said: "At the moment we are really concentrating on recycling and we are up to 46 per cent of all our waste being recycled now. Even the waste that is not recycled does not go to landfill - it is incinerated at Marchwood, producing power for homes."

But Lib Dem and opposition leader Roger Price said: "We would certainly bring in weekly refuse collections, that's essential. The administration took us to a fortnightly collection and it's not working. For recycling it's okay, but for general waste it's a health hazard.

"A major issue across the borough is the appalling lack of cleanliness.

"The administration hasn't got to grips with the problem. There needs to be more street cleaners or the enforcement against litter being dropped."

He said the Lib Dems would also scrap a recently introduced £20 fee to call out pest controllers.

"We do not agree with the charge," he said. "We don't have any major problems with rats, but it's an issue that will come back and bite us if we don't keep on top of it. People might not bother to report rats if they have to pay."

The Tories, however, pride themselves on their low council tax rates.

Cllr Woodward said: "We are about delivering the best possible services at the lowest possible cost. If you look at the 410 district councils' taxes across the country, we rate at about 405 as we set one of the lowest council tax rates.

"We are also proud of our concessionary travel for older people. Our scheme is better than most others around us. The Government requirement is for free travel for older people to run from 9.30am to 11pm, but our's runs from 9am to 1am. It makes all the difference for older people needing to get to hospital appointments and so on.

"We only collect £5m in council tax from our residents and we spend £1m of that on concessionary travel for the elderly. Of our population of 110,000, tens of thousands are elderly, so this is an important area of investment for us."

United But the contentious issue of gravel extraction is uniting both parties.

Hampshire County Council has earmarked Brownwich and Chilling, an area between Titchfield Common and the Solent, as a potential site to provide up to eight million tonnes of sand and gravel. The current administration has already opposed the suggestion.

Cllr Woodward said: "Our hope is that Chilling will be removed from the list. It's not a preferred site and would have a terrible environmental impact on that area."

Cllr Price added: "Gravel extraction should never go ahead at the site. It's not in the county's preferred plan and should not be allowed to happen."

The opponents are also united on parking, both promising tighter controls in Fareham town centre.

Cllr Woodward said: "We have recently decriminalised car parking in Fareham, taking the responsibility away from the police. We have now got 12 parking enforcement officers, which means people do not park contravening regulations with impunity any more.

"On the back of that, we are starting to look at residents' parking schemes for Fareham town centre. Once people are displaced from parking illegally, they start cluttering up residents' streets. So we're looking at introducing a permit scheme for residents."

The Lib Dems also want to see a new parking system. Cllr Price said: "People park in the side roads while they're shopping or working in town. It's an issue that the present administration has been looking at for a considerable amount of time but nothing has come to fruition.

"We would heighten this issue and get decisions made to introduce parking schemes and restrictions."

The two party leaders pledge fewer large-scale housing developments in the future.

Cllr Woodward said: "The house-building rate is going to be significantly less than half it has been over the last ten years.

"A total of 3,270 new homes are needed in Fareham over the next 20 years - less than half the build rate we have seen over the last decade.

"There have been a lot of back garden developments recently, particularly in Park Gate, which has been dubbed Flat City'. This is down to John Prescott's policies of designating back gardens as brownfield sites and cramming in the maximum number of units possible.

"That's something that worries us and we have refused a lot of applications, but have then lost on appeal. We will keep fighting these developments."

Cllr Price said: "We believe the council has rolled over too easily to comply with the Government recently.

"The administration has allowed flats to be built where we believe one could have sustained objections. Yes, the developers would have gone to appeal, but we could have sustained them."

Also in the fight for seats on the council are candidates from Labour, the British National Party, the UK Independence Party, the English Democrats, and three candidates from the Green Party.