Labour feels the Peterborough effect

25th April 1997 at 01:00
As Mark Whitehead found in Cambridgeshire, local government re-organisation may lead to Labour losses

Headteacher Margaret Chattra-bhuti clutched a sheaf of replies to her letters from candidates in the local and national elections.

"Nobody has any solutions to offer us," she said."We don't want to get involved in party politics. We just need funding for our budget. But nobody has promised anything that looks likely to deliver."

Milton Road Infants school, in a comfortable middle-class area of Cambridge, is the model of a happy, successful school, with national curriculum test results way above the national average and a glowing recent OFSTED inspection report.

Yet at a school in which many pupils come from high-achieving families connected to the university and high-tech companies in the area, three specialist part-time teachers are being made redundant. One, the IT co-ordinator, who was to take charge of updating the school's computers, has already gone. The other two working out their notices specialise in technology and music.

It is the first time in living memory such a thing has happened. Mass letter-writing campaigns among the parents came to nothing and this year's redundancies resulted from a Pounds 17,000 cut in its budget.

Throughout the county, which includes the Prime Minister's, Tory party chairman Brian Mawhinney's and education minister James Paice's constituencies, 57 teachers' jobs are being cut this year despite rising pupil numbers.

Secondary-school heads have banded together to protest. Even grant-maintained schools have been forced to sack staff. But some fear things could get far worse.

Cambridgeshire, which is still suffering from low government grant - some say because of the austere spending levels set by the former Tory council leader Lady Blatch - could be set for a return to a Tory leadership at county hall.

The Tories reckon they need to regain only four seats to take control of the county after four years of Lib-Lab pact. Under the current "working agreement, " 21 Labour, 20 Lib Democrats and one Liberal combine forces to outvote the Tories' 33 seats. But on April 1 next year, Peterborough, the largest town in the county, is set to go it alone as a unitary authority, taking 18 county councillors with it.

This could mean a decisive shift in the balance of power to the Tories because half the Peterborough wards are strongly Labour, and councillors from the city will be barred from taking part in decisions affecting the county's spending after April 1998 when the unitary authority comes into being.

The Peterborough effect, plus a few seats changing hands, could leave the Tories in overall control in the "new Cambridgeshire".

To add to the potential political shift, John Horrell, the moderate leader of the council's Tory group, is quitting the county council to try for a seat in the new unitary authority, his home town. His likely successor, John Reynolds, is regarded as more ideologically ruthless.

Mr Reynolds, who is organising the county's local election campaign for his party, puts the blame for the schools' budget problems squarely with the local authority. Only a fraction of an extra Pounds 6.6 million in government grant this year was handed out to schools, he says.

"We believe schools can manage their resources far better than the council, " he said. "There needs to be a thorough review of special education to see how that money is being spent."

The Tories' campaign literature promises to put an extra Pounds 3 million into schools in the first year and to devolve at least 95 per cent of council money to school budgets.

The Tories promise to review the notorious area cost-adjustment formula which could mean Cambridgeshire gaining an extra Pounds 10 million a year. Others say this is a matter for government to decide.

But the spectre of a bloated local authority wasting money at the expense of schools is rejected by Labour and Lib Dem candidates who point out that Cambridgeshire is among the lowest-spending of all county councils in terms of central administration.

"We have a very mean machine, as the Audit Commission has recognised," said Labour group leader Janet Jones. "It's nonsense to keep saying we can solve all the problems in schools by getting rid of the pen-pushers at county hall. "

She fears that Tory supporters who did not vote at the last local election, leading to successes for the Lib Dems, could return to the fold this time. That could give Mr Reynolds the leadership mantle, a prospect she views with alarm. "I would be fearful for the future of our services," she said. "There would be more teacher redundancies and massive cuts in social services."

Lib Dem education spokesperson Sal Brinton said: "The Tories have a simplistic view about the problems in education. They don't realise how close to the bone many schools are."

How any of this translates into votes on May 1 must depend on who the voters choose to believe.

Wendy Silby, the Tory education spokesman on the county council, is surprisingly honest. "People on the doorstep ask me where the money is going to come from to put into schools, and I tell them we need to tighten up on wastage. The message is getting across, but it's difficult."

For Milton Road Infants school, the future looks bleak. None of the candidates in the local elections, says chairman of the governing body Nick Brenton, is able to make a convincing offer of hard cash to head off the funding crisis.

"There is a real mood of despondency here," he said. "We're doing well, yet we're being forced to make teachers redundant I we're not being offered the one important choice, which is to fund the education service properly."

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