A KEY by-election campaign has turned ugly with Tories accusing a senior Independent councillor of dirty tricks.

Council leader Nigel Holdcroft is considering reporting Ron Woodley over a leaflet distributed in West Leigh ahead of a by-election in the ward on Thursday.

There have also been complaints about an e-mail from Mr Woodley, in which he calls Conservative cabinet member Tony Cox “Blobby” and an “idiot”.

The leaflet criticises the Conservatives’ record on education and consultations, and makes claims about the council’s debt levels, which are disputed by the Tories.

Mr Holdcroft said: “There is no doubt councillor Woodley’s figures are inaccurate and misleading and deliberately aimed to influence the outcome of a by-election in a part of the town in which he has never shown any interest.

“The question is whether he simply doesn’t understand the true financial position of the council, or is trying to mislead the public.

“I will give him the benefit of the doubt and assume he simply doesn’t understand local government funding.

“Finally, it is unfortunate he should descend to petty name calling, however, I regret this appears to be how the Independent Party wants to contribute to the debate as to the management and future of the town.”

Mr Woodley claims debt has risen from £63million to £289million for the 2013/14 financial year under the Conservatives and interest on the debt has cost £82.7million over the past seven years and £19.1million for 2013/14.

Mr Holdcroft claims debt at the end of this financial year will be £256.8million of which £84.5million relates to council housing, which is managed through council rent. Interest on the remaining £172million cost £14.6million for 2013/14.

Mr Holdcroft, who is standing down as Conservative leader and West Leigh councillor at the full Southend Council elections in May, said: “We have asked the chief executive to consider whether the leaflets and advert require investigation by the police or electoral commission.”

Each £1million the council borrows costs about £80,000 a year in interest payments which could be spent on libraries, or children’s centres.

Mr Woodley, who favours saving up for big projects rather than borrowing, said: “It doesn’t matter if he takes a complaint forward because the debt levels are there.

“The debt levels have been stated by the audit committee and in the council’s own blue book of its finances. He might say the borrowing for the housing stock comes from a different pot, but the council is still ultimately responsible for the debt.”