SOUTHEND Conservatives are facing their biggest struggle in years as they battle to stay in control at the Civic Centre.
The Tories are on the election trail knowing they have to get their message across effectively after suffering some heavy defeats over the past three years.
In two consecutive elections, Tory council leaders were kicked out by the electorate.
Unexpected gains by the Lib Dems and independents have also steadily chipped away at the Tory majority at Southend Civic Centre.
The Lib Dems, Labour and Independents are again hoping to win more seats on May 1, which could see the Tory majority crumble.
At the moment, the Tories have 29 seats, Lib Dems have ten, Labour has seven and the independents have five.
If Tory councillors are kicked out in four seats, they will lose overall control of the council.
However, Tory council leader Nigel Holdcroft is still upbeat about his party's election chances.
He said: "I"m confident at the way things are going. All the 17 Tory candidates are working very hard and are getting very encouraging feedback on the doorstep."
Asked what would happen if the Tories lost control, he said: "My group will be putting me forward for leader of the council at the mayor making and we will either receive support from other members or we won't.
"We are certainly not intending to enter into behind-the-scenes negotiations with anybody. We put forward our proposals for the coming year and would ask for support from all the members of the council. If they give it, fine, and if they don't they will have to cobble together some coalition."
Lib Dem leader Graham Longley, leader of the largest opposition party, said he was hoping his candidates would win in Prittlewell and St Laurence wards.
Mr Longley said "the possibilities are endless" if the Tories lose control. He said the Conservatives could still control the council without a majority, in a method called minority control.
He added: "The Conservatives could try to go into minority control, but that would mean they would be putting everything they do to the three parties.
"Although they would be in minority control it would effectively be the three other parties making decisions.
"If the Tories lose control they are going to be a minority by one or possibly two seats. They don't need the whole of one group, one or two of the independents could support them. It doesn't have to be a formal agreement it could be a personal agreement.
"If it is a loose agreement it would make it difficult throughout the year. The whole process is fraught with complications."
Independent spokesman, Martin Terry, said he would like to see a coalition of groups if the Tories lose overall control.
He said: "We've already said we are independents. We don't have a leader, although I'm spokesman for the group.
"We don't have a whip and we don't have set policies. It would be a betrayal of those people who voted independent if we suddenly formed a bond with a political party.
"Our view is it's all open for negotiation. We would like to see a proper coalition council with the views of local residents and businesses put before the interests of political parties."
David Norman, chairman of the Labour Group of Southend Council, said his activists were battling hard. He added: "It's always tough for the party of Government in mid-term, but we are very confident on the returns we have received, of holding on to our strongholds of Kursaal and Victoria.
"St Luke's ward is obviously a seven-way race, but again we think it looks very promising for us in that particular ward, and we are also campaigning very hard in wards like Milton."
Docile affair for Rochford voters
IN contrast to Southend, Rochford District Council elections are a very docile affair.
The Tories' iron grip on the authority is likely to remain.
The opposition to the Tories is scattered among a variety of parties from the Green Party to the BNP.
The Lib Dems, who form the major opposition at the moment, have managed to find more candidates than in recent years, especially in Rayleigh.
Realistically, however, there is probably only one seat the Lib Dems are hoping to win, Sweyne Park.
Joan Mockford, the Conservative councillor in Sweyne Park, won the seat at a by-election after the death of her husband Gerry. Having beaten Tory Peter Savill last year, the Lib Dems are hoping their candidate Patricia Putt will be able to achieve the same success.
The English Democrats, who have four candidates in Rayleigh and Rochford. Otherwise, it is likely the most interest will be in the performance of the BNP in Hullbridge and Hockley North. Last year, the far right party came second in both these seats - in Hullbridge in the May elections and Hockley North at a by-election. They will be aiming to build on this base on May 1.
The southend seats to watch
These are the five wards which could hold the key as to whether the Conservatives can retain their eight-year hold on the reins of power in the town, or whether it could slip from their fingers.
THE Conservatives are defending Prittlewell with a new candidate, Mel Day.
Mr Day is the party's current St Luke's councillor, who was deselected at the beginning of the year as part of the internal disputes in the party.
This is one ward where the Lib Dems are determined to make a killing after having won in the past two years, ousting two council leaders.
At one time, Prittlewell was solid Lib Dem territory, until the Tory landslides in 2000 and 2001.
Sitting councillor, former mayor Ron Price is standing down.
The Lib Dem candidate this year is Mary Betson, an experienced campaigner and former councillor, who also comes from a well-known and old established Southend family.
The battle will be between these two contenders, with the rest of the field being made up of Labour, BNP and UKIP candidates.
THIS is the Liberal Democrats' other key seat where they are looking for the scalp of Mark Flewitt, Tory councillor responsible for adult social care.
Mr Flewitt is the party's one remaining councillor in the ward. The Lib Dems have ousted the Tories in the past two elections.
Again, this is a two-horse race with Labour and the BNP unlikely to make that much of an impact.
If the Lib Dems are to again form a major force in a coalition administration on the council, St Luke's is a seat they must win back.
THE Tories will be pulling out all the stops to make sure they don't lose "the jewel in the crown" for the second time in as many years.
The old saying "they don't count Conservative votes in Thorpe, they just weigh them" was turned on its head last year when Ron Woodley, chairman of the Burges Estate Residents' Association won a convincing victory.
This followed another deselection row when sitting councillor Tony Delaney was rejected in favour of Nigel Folkard.
At the election on May 1, Sally Carr, Tory councillor responsible for education, is facing the residents' association treasurer Mike Stafford.
It would be the worst possible disaster for the Tories if such a long-established councillor was to lose.
THIS was once a solid Labour stronghold. However, Tories have made in-roads in recent years.
With sitting Conservative councillor Mel Day being deselected, Labour candidate Ann Chalk will be hoping to beat the new Tory, ward party chairman Peter Ashley.
However, the race looks totally wide open with seven candidates standing from across the whole political spectrum, from the BNP to the Green Party.
Local restarateur Paul Van Looy is standing as an independent in St Luke's and reports suggest has been doing well in an area where he is well known.
With this number of contenders anything is possible.
THE Conservatives want to win back the Shoebury seat they lost in a by-election following the death of sitting councillor Allan Cole.
This was won by independent Mike Assenheim, but with a very low turnout.
The party is hoping its candidate Graham Hill will be able to make a comeback and again, this looks very like a two-horse race with Labour, Lib Dems and the BNP.