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After decades of decline, independent candidates are to contest this week's council elections in the biggest number...
After decades of decline, independent candidates are to contest this week's council elections in the biggest numbers for 30 years, reported The Sunday Times (p12).

Building on the surprise success of non-party candidates in last year's contests for directly elected mayors, more than 2,000 candidates are to run on independent tickets in Thursday's polls. Standing as individuals or as part of loose groupings, many are competing as local personalities on single issues, taking advantage of the perceived remoteness of the national parties with their slick election machines.

Independents used to be a considerable force but faded after Edward Heath's wholesale reorganisation of local government in 1974, which saw the demise of many smaller local authorities that were less susceptible to party control.

In recent years independents have mainly been restricted to rural wards, but they are now contesting urban seats. Mansfield in Nottinghamshire, Middlesbrough and Bedford are among the towns where their challenge is expected to be strongest.

Paul Ogden, spokesman for the 2,200-strong Association of Independent Councillors, said: 'We've seen a definite shift in the areas where independents are prepared to go into battle. Traditionally, it's been the rural councils where we've been strong, but this time we are seeing candidates taking on Labour in areas it has always regarded as its heartlands'.

The largest independent challenge to Labour is in Mansfield, where the party has held control for 30 years. Following local newsagent Tony Egginton's easy win in last year's mayoral contest, 33 candidates have decided to follow his lead. In Middlesbrough, the mayoral victory by former police chief Ray Mallon has had a similar effect, with 13 independent candidates seeking election.

Further south, 15 candidates are seeking election under the Better Bedford banner of independent mayor Frank Branson, hoping to join five councillors who defected to the cause from other parties after his win.

Elsewhere, inde pendents have been rallied by single issues rather than a local personality. In Sefton, the Southport Party has seven candidates standing on a platform of more autonomy for their part of the metropolitan district that straddles Bootle on Merseyside. In Yorkshire's East Riding Council, anger at a pay rise for the authority's chief executives has seen 22 candidates enter the fray.

Of the minor parties standing on Thursday, it is the fortunes of the far-right British National Party that will again arouse most interest following its victory in three seats in Burnley last year and two subsequent council by-election wins. This year it is fielding a record 221 candidates.

In addition to the English local elections, polls in Scotland and Wales add up to the biggest test for Tony Blair before the next general election. In Scotland voters must elect new representatives for the Scottish parliament as well as local councillors.

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