CONSERVATIVES were back at the helm of Calderdale Council today - for the first time in 21 years.

CONSERVATIVES were back at the helm of Calderdale Council today - for the first time in 21 years.They gained nine seats in the annual elections while Labour lost 10.

Not since 1975 have the Tories enjoyed such a resounding night of triumph.

The scene was set early on when Labour leader Michael Higgins was forced to admit defeat in the St John s ward - and he vowed never to stand for election again.

He was then forced to watch his party crumble.

Ithad been the largest group with 20 of the 54 seats but within 90 minutes, its total was slashed by half.

His consolation was that he was the only Labour candidate to get more than 1,000 votes.

At the same time, the overall number of votes cast was at a record low of little more than 40,000 out of a total electorate of 140,000.

Among the other dramatic losses for Labour was Mixenden where neither the party s official candidate nor the Independent Labour candidate, Coun Redmond Mellett, was able to win. Labour lost out in its usual stronghold of Illingworth and its Brighouse seat fell to only the second Independent candidate ever to win a seat on the council, Mr Colin Stout.

The Conservatives, who ended the night with 28 seats, picked up Rastrick, Sowerby Bridge, Warley and Town wards, as well as regaining Hipperholme and Lightcliffe and Ryburn.

The Liberal Democrats held on to the four seats they were defending and picked up a fifth in the Calder Valley ward - giving them all nine seats in the upper Calder Valley area for the first time.

Group leader Coun David Shutt (Greetland and Stainland) said the election had been decided by less than a quarter of the electorate and by people deeply opposed to local taxes.

But the night belonged to Conservative leader Coun John Ford, whose failure to win a by-election in 1979, effectively ended the last period of Tory control of the council.

This time, he was safely re-elected in Skircoat and if, as expected, he is reappointed leader of his group at a meeting on Monday, he looks set to be in charge of the council for at least the next two years - there are no elections in 2001.

We will have to look carefully at all the issues affecting the council but we won t be making any changes just for the sake of it, he said. Whatever we do, it will be in the best interests of Calderdale as a whole.

The overall composition of the council after yesterday s election is Conservative 28 seats, Liberal Democrats 15, Labour 10 and there is one Independent.

Police reported a quiet night at polling stations across Calderdale. Officers had been asked to attend various stations at the request of the returning officer to allow people to vote freely.