Sulivan Primary set to be saved in triumph of local democracy

Still think voting is pointless? A Labour council has just saved an award-winning school which the Tories had planned to close.

Still think voting is pointless? A Labour council has just saved an award-winning school which the Tories had planned to close

If it were in my gift, and if he weren’t a wildly inappropriate influence, I’d invite Russell Brand to meet the pupils of Sulivan Primary in the London Borough of Hammersmith and Fulham.

Thanks to the recent ousting of Cameron’s favourite council these children still have their award-winning school, a school which the Tories were about to shut down so that its land could be given to a free school.

I’m not sure that even Brand could tell these children that voting is pointless.

It was last night that the newly elected Labour administration, in fulfilment of its election promises, formally approved proposals to revoke the closure order issued to Sulivan school.

The story behind the decision to close Sulivan is one of deceit, cronyism and almost-certainly unlawful behaviour by the Tories’ flagship council. The way in which the staff, pupils and parents of Sulivan Primary were treated is one of the ugliest episodes I have witnessed in politics, although it didn’t surprise those more familiar with the practices of the previous administration.

Sulivan’s Head Teacher, Wendy Aldridge, was told shortly before last year’s summer holidays that the council wanted to close her school (this was before any consultation had taken place). The following consultation process was then shamelessly rigged (for example, vast numbers of consultation responses from Sulivan supporters were discarded on the grounds that they were submitted in the wrong format, even though no prescribed format was specified).

The council knowingly included false information about Sulivan on its website, wrongly stating that the school was undersubscribed in every year group and then refusing to correct the statement.

Many Sulivan supporters were physically shut out from an initial public meeting on the proposals, and the Tories later scheduled a key meeting for a weekday morning during term time.

Key founders of the free school in question, Fulham Boys’ School, include Alex Wade, a Conservative party member and Arabella Northey, an old and very close friend of the former Tory cabinet member for education, Georgie Cooney. Correspondence from council officials made it absolutely clear that the free school wanted the land and the Tories wanted to give it to them.

In short, the whole thing stank, and it was made worse by the attitude taken by cabinet members to the residents they were meant to represent. At a crammed council meeting in January I was completely taken aback by the disdainful rudeness with which cabinet members addressed Sulivan supporters – ordinary men and women aghast at what was happening to their kids’ school.

When they were ignored and when the cabinet voted to close Sulivan despite the strength of the opposing arguments, many shouted “Shame on you!” followed by “Out in May!” and “See you in May!” (this clip from the meeting is poor quality but still worth watching).

And they were right, the Tories were out in May with a large swing to Labour. Many Sulivan supporters walked en masse to the polling station wearing their Save Our Sulivan badges in what turned out to be more than a symbolic display of resistance.

Not that the Sulivan controversy was the only reason for the Tory defeat, not by any means. A big factor was the Tories’ support for government proposals to close Charing Cross A&E and their subsequent tax-payer funded propaganda which falsely claimed that the council had saved the A&E service (it turns out that voters don’t like being lied to about their local hospital).

Another important issue was the proposed demolition of social housing estates where residents, many elderly, had lived for years. These were to be replaced with luxury flats.

Council tax was cut but stealth taxes rocketed. Other money-making schemes were also introduced, such as the entrapment of innocent motorists which led to the number of moving traffic fines increasing from under 4,000 in 2005/6 to over 72,000 in 2011/2012.

Worse, for years the council knowingly overcharged elderly residents in sheltered accommodation for water (residents were charged twice the amount the Tory administration paid to Thames Water), an act for which the council was found guilty of maladministration by the Local Government Ombudsman.

The Tory council was also sanctioned by the Ombudsman when they failed to offer statutory homeless help to a heavily pregnant woman who had fled domestic violence and was sleeping – terrified – in a local park. When a local homelessness charity took the council to the Ombudsman, the Tories responded by withdrawing all council funding from the charity, forcing it to close.

Residents also found themselves being charged to use public parks.

Despite all this, the Conservatives were so confident they would win in May that they didn’t even produce a manifesto. The reason for this confidence? They had reduced council tax. As one Conservative councillor told Labour leader Stephen Cowan, they didn’t “need a manifesto because people know what they’re going to get”.

Part of the problem for the uber-Thatcherite Hammersmith and Fulham Tories was that they assumed that everyone was like them: concerned almost exclusively with low headline tax rates. If that’s the most important thing to you then I suppose it’s hard to comprehend that others might value other things more, like fairness and community and education and not letting pregnant victims of domestic violence sleep on park benches.

The other big mistake the Tories made is they underestimated voters. Did they really think that residents would notice lower council tax but not notice the extraordinary rise in traffic fines, or the fact that they now have to pay for services which were previously free?

Rather terrifyingly, Cameron and other leading Tories chose to associate themselves with this council. If you want to know what you might expect from a Tory majority, look at the Hammersmith and Fulham Tories – and be afraid.

Annie Powell is a contributing editor to Left Foot Forward. Follow her on Twitter

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