After an election nightmare in 2011, York’s Liberal Democrats faced a long road back. Their new leader tells political reporter Mark Stead he believes his party is rising again.

TWO years ago, describing York’s Liberal Democrats as being at a crossroads might have been considered kind.

The local-election trouncing suffered by the group which led City of York Council for eight years – losing 12 seats, with their leader and his predecessor among the casualties, as the party felt a local and national backlash – meant much of the intervening period has been spent rebuilding.

Halfway between elections, the Lib Dems have a new leader – 31-year-old teacher Keith Aspden, Fulford’s councillor since 2003 – a six-point plan of attack, a new councillor in Lynn Jeffries, once of Labour, and a bullish approach. They see themselves as “the real alternative” to York’s Labour rulers.

The Conservatives would surely contest that. Like the Lib Dems, they have nine councillors, plus an independent councillor’s support, making them the official opposition.

But Coun Aspden, who replaced Carol Runciman as leader last month, said: “Whether it’s over Beckfield Lane tip and Burnholme Community College’s closure, green bin-charging or service cuts, we, not the Tories, are the ones challenging Labour.

“I hope, going into the next election, we’ll present a strong platform across the city and make gains by standing up for York’s villages and suburbs.”

These villages and suburbs have, Coun Aspden believes, become disconnected from the council under Labour.

“Communities feel the council doesn’t work with them or represent them,” he says.

“We need to ensure the council bureaucracy hears what they say. What people talk about is their concerns over basic frontline services they expect the council to deliver. The feeling on the ground is these have got worse under Labour and the council is a political entity, rather than an organisation concentrating on providing services.”

Coun Aspden acknowledges apprenticeships have risen under the current regime, but any plaudits end there.

Labour, he claims, “make excuses or blame the Government” about unpopular policies. “Thousands, sometimes hundreds of thousands, of pounds are spent on vanity projects while communities reel from the impact of day-to-day decisions. It seems impossible to get that message through to Labour.”

He feels the draft Local Plan risks “destroying” countryside and his party will oppose its current approach, but he says it can’t yet supply detailed alternatives due to being denied key information. He says greater consultation should have been held with businesses before trialling Lendal Bridge’s closure: “Some didn’t know what was planned, some are just finding out”.

One of his chief fears is recycling, which he says rose 31 per cent under his party. “We were proud of that. Now it’s stalled. Labour have to get a grip on this.

“Over the next two years, we’ll present the message that York must be a greener city and increase recycling by working with residents, rather than against them. We have aspirations, new ideas, but it’s a case of picking the right aspirations which have a positive impact on communities, rather than schemes we think will make us look good.”

After an “unquestionably poor” 2011 election showing, Coun Aspden credits Coun Runciman with mapping the way back. “She has done a great job, stabilised the group and got it into the position to present an alternative to Labour and the Conservatives.”

York isn’t seen as having “classic Lib Dem territory”, but Coun Aspden sees this as an opportunity to target wards everywhere. His party retains experience from leading the council, he says, but also a crop of young candidates, and he’s prepared to work with all parties “where we can agree”.

“We have to be confident, and while we know there are difficult decisions to be made at the council, we want to make these decisions in a different way,” he says. “We want to be the voice of the villages and communities in the council, rather than it being the other way round. Relatively small things could be changed for the better in York, but barriers are put up. We want to change that.”

Planning for 2015 election

THE Liberal Democrats say their “Six To Fix” plan will be the backbone of their 2015 election manifesto. Its key areas include:

• Protecting York’s Green Belt through “sustainable” housing targets and using brownfield sites ahead of greenfield sites

• Ending “wasteful spending” on the city centre, reversing social care cuts, and keeping all libraries and community centres open while increasing their funding

• “Listening to and working with” local businesses, giving them a “proper chance” to compete for council contracts, and campaigning to cut business rates for small firms while increasing support for rural businesses

• Increasing road-repair funding, reversing bus service cuts, creating a transport plan to link rural and urban communities and increase walking, cycling and public transport use, and setting up an “accident reduction fund” to improve road safety

• Increasing recycling to 50 per cent, introducing a food waste collection, and compiling an energy plan to reduce council carbon emissions and create “green jobs”

• More funding for youth services and youth centres and ensuring apprenticeship schemes make “a real difference in York”.