Back on the ward rounds

17th May 1996 at 01:00
Roy Walker, the former Tory leader of Bury Council, is remarkably chipper considering the drubbing his party has just suffered at the polling booths. "Depressed? No, not really," he said. "I'm relieved to be still on the council after 14 years. Overjoyed, in fact."

Just over a year ago the Bolton Institute of Higher Education lecturer headed a 20-strong Tory group. But on May 3 that total was slashed to only four even though Bury, a peculiar amalgam of old wool towns and modern commuter villages and suburbs, has two Conservative MPs and strong Tory associations dating back to Sir Robert Peel, its most famous son.

"I'm back to being a backbencher again - the only one - but I don't mind, " Walker explained. "As group leader you are at everybody's beck and call. I got tired of that."

Walker will now concentrate on the ward work that he enjoys best and act as his party's solitary representative on the education committee, which had five Tories before the election. Labour plans to take 10 of the 12 seats on the new education committee.

Walker is aware that there are nine metropolitan education authorities where the Conservatives now have no voice at all (see table). In places such as Gateshead there are Lib Dem groups which will offer Labour some opposition, but in Stoke, one of the new unitary authorities to be established next year, there will be no one to challenge the 60 Labour members.

It is a trend that concerns Professor Maurice Kogan, of Brunel University, even though LEAs no longer have the scope for independent decision-making that they once enjoyed. "The testing of a dominant majority's view is always valuable, " he said. "There is a strong democratic case for more than one kind of voice in education policy development."

Naturally, Roy Walker endorses that view. "I think even Labour is beginning to realise that the present situation isn't very healthy," he said. "It knows that there has to be some opposition. One of the leading Labour councillors said he would second me if I'm proposing something that he considers reasonable. It may seem ridiculous but I won't even be able to get into the minutes book otherwise."

Even so, it remains to be seen how valuable this kind of support will be. Like many local politicians he has a better working relationship with his political adversaries than national politicians do. "The Bury Labour group went through a funny phase in about 1987 when it started supporting South Africa Day and nuclear-free zones, but it moderated its policies after losing a few seats, " he said. But there are still strong disagreements.

Labour will welcome Walker's occasional attacks on the iniquities of grant-maintained school funding. He is chair of governors of a GM secondary school but still thinks it is scandalous that a single GM primary school got a larger capital grant one year than the rest of Bury's schools put together. However, he can't expect any backing for his advocacy of Government education policy - "I'm proud of the Government's record on the national curriculum, testing, expansion of higher and further education."

And there will definitely be no seconder for his criticism of Labour's recent decision to spend Pounds 21,000 marking out bus stops, money that he feels should have been spent on textbooks.

Everybody likes to encourage an underdog, but there are limits.

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