VOTERS will go to the polls next Thursday to decide control of Hampshire County Council - and its £1bn budget.
Conservatives who hold 51 of the 78 seats will face a stiff challenge from the UK Independence Party fielding a candidate in nearly every division for the first time.
UKIP is riding high after coming second in the Eastleigh by-election, pushing the Tories into third.
Hugh McGuinness, chairman of Eastleigh branch of UKIP, claims it can repeat that success: “I think we will come second in Hampshire overall in terms of voting, but that does not necessarily mean winning seats.”
Mr McGuinness said he expected UKIP to win seats on the council which is responsible for schools, child protection, social care, libraries, museums, waste disposal, road repairs and country parks. The Tories have been in control since 1997.
Despite the Tories’ huge majority, Keith House, leader of the Lib Dem opposition, insisted he was fighting to win control: “Hampshire needs change: investing in our county, creating jobs, ending the misery of a shortage of school places and protecting services.”
The Lib Dems accused the Tories of savagely cutting services while spending £223,000 on televised council meetings and other “frivolous projects.”
Cllr House said: “They have built up reserves of £300m yet starved Hampshire of investment.”
But the Tories point to their record - shackling council tax while maintaining high-quality services such as child protection.
The deepest cuts - £100m - were made over the last two years and included a cull of senior managers.
This year the council announced plans for 1,000 apprenticeships, thousands more school places and £600m on infrastructure projects.
Communications chief Cllr Colin Davidovitz said the Tories expected to increase its majority.
He said: “UKIP has shown that it will replace the Lib Dems as the party of protest on national issues, but we don’t believe it will have such an impact locally.”
As parties prepare for a final week of campaigning, issues include potholes, shortage of school places, library cuts and the future of the museum service if it passes from council control to a trust.
In Itchen Valley, plans for 14 wind turbines at Bullington Cross could swing votes. Tory candidate Lisa Griffiths is strongly opposed but Lib Dem Jackie Porter has said she is not against wind farms in principle.
Meanwhile Labour claim to be the “only realistic alternative” to the big two.
Patrick Davies, candidate in Winchester Eastgate, said: “A vote for either of those two parties is a vote for the same disastrous policies which the last three years have proved cannot solve this country’s problems,” he said.
There is an intriguing contest in Winchester Southern Parishes where former senior Tory city councillor John Cooper stands as an independent.
He said: “My resignation from the Conservatives is because both nationally and locally there are now too many policies I cannot support, such as defence and planning. In the last three years in particular I think the Conservatives have lost their way and it’s time to go.”
The Greens are only contesting two seats in the Winchester area, down from four in 2009. Left-wing Trade Unionists and Socialists Against Cuts are contesting two.
The current make-up of the council is Conservatives 51 seats, Liberal Democrats 24, Labour one, Community Campaign (Hart) one and Green Party one.
List of county council candidates
Roger Bentote, Lib Dem
Rob Humby, Con
Robert Rudge, Lab
Vivienne Young, UKIP
Andrew Adams, Lab
Clive Boot, UKIP
Lisa Griffiths, Con
Jackie Porter, Lib Dem
Kim Comotto, UKIP
Christopher Day, Lib Dem
Roger Huxstep, Con
David Picton-Jones, Lab
Phil Bailey, Lib Dem
Chris Barton-Briddon, UKIP
James Byrnes, Con
Elaine Fullaway, Lab
Dave Boyes, Trade Unionists and Socialists Against Cuts
Brian Collin, Lib Dem
Patrick Davies, Lab
Fiona Mather, Con
Bradley Monk, UKIP
Michael Wilks, Green
Winchester Southern Parishes
Vivian Achwal, Lib Dem
John Cooper, Ind
John Henderson, UKIP
Sheena King, Lab
Patricia Stallard, Con
David Abbott, UKIP
Adam Freeman, TUSC
James Leppard, Labour and Co-operative Party,
Ian Tait, Con
Martin Tod, Lib Dem
Dave Walker-Nix, Green