THE ruling Liberal Democrats have strengthened their position on City of York Council, after winning a crucial by-election.

Voters in Heworth Without went to the polls yesterday, following the untimely death of councillor Bill Bennett two months ago.

On a greatly increased turnout following a vigorous campaign, Lib Dem Nigel Ayre won the seat back from the Conservatives, polling 914 of the 1,960 votes cast.

Conservative Adam Sinclair was second, with 703, while Labour's Margaret Wells came third with 219. The British National Party candidate Michaela Knight won 63 votes, pushing Chris Everett of the Green Party into last place with 58. Two papers were spoiled.

The newly-elected Coun Ayre, who had narrowly lost the seat at the city-wide elections in May, said: "I was obviously disappointed last time, but I am very proud to be able to represent the electorate in the place where I live."

He said he already had meetings with residents arranged, to discuss various issues such as flooding and road surfaces.

Mr Sinclair, chairman of York Business Pride and managing director of Mulberry Hall, in Stonegate, York, said: "We have to pay tribute to the work Nigel Ayre has done both in the ward and on the campaign, and clearly we misjudged the Heworth Without electorate."

He said it had been a "great night for democracy", after turnout increased from 55.1 per cent in May to 61.8 per cent.

Margaret Wells said: "It has been great meeting the people of Heworth Without.

"I have absolutely loved the campaign and would like to thank them."

Labour leader David Scott said the result was evidence of tactical voting, and said it showed the Conservatives' honeymoon was over.

Ian Dawson, of the BNP, said the amount at stake for the three main parties meant it was unsurprising that they and the Greens had been a distant fourth and fifth. He said: "We have announced we are here to stay."

Mr Everett said their vote had been squeezed, but said people had decided it was a two-way battle between the Lib Dems and Conservatives, and had voted tactically.

Coun Steve Galloway, leader of the council and of the Liberal Democrats, described Coun Ayre as "an energetic, local candidate who deserves his chance to represent the community in which he lives".

But he said the tragic death of Coun Bennett, which had led to the by-election, may temper any celebrations.

He also paid tribute to the work Mr Sinclair had done for York, saying he hoped they could continue to work together "across the political divide".

The result means the Lib Dems now have 20 of the 47 seats on the council. Labour have 18, the Conservatives seven and the Greens two.

The Lib Dems currently run the council, and the result does mean that if the Conservatives abstain on any council vote, the Greens and Labour would no longer be able to beat the Lib Dems by themselves.