Poll wipes out the Tory heartlands

10th May 1996 at 01:00
John Major's desire to have a grammar school in every town will be severely tested following the Conservatives' drubbing in last week's local government elections.

The Prime Minister will almost certainly have to force his proposal on to Labour or Liberal-Democrat controlled authorities.

For with the Conservative loss of nearly 600 council seats in last Thursday's polls there now is no Tory heartland in local government.

They control just one shire county - Buckinghamshire; none of the 13 new unitary authorities and in Solihull, a one-time flagship metropolitan authority, they are reduced to brokering a power-sharing deal.

Knowsley, Manchester, Newcastle upon Tyne, Oldham, Salford, South Tyneside, Tameside and Wigan, all authorities with control over education, have not a single Tory councillor between them.

In Birmingham, Labour increased its hold on the city council taking 12 of the 15 seats the Conservatives lost. It now has 87 out of the 117 seats.

Other big losses for the Conservatives came in Bradford (14 seats), Dudley (12), Sandwell (15), Bury (7) and Coventry (7). Overall it was the second-worst performance in the local elections for the Conservatives.

In Milton Keynes, one of the 13 new unitary authorities where the Tories have been championing the case for a grammar school for decades, just two Conservatives were elected.

Andy Dransfield, a Buckinghamshire county councillor and the man mainly behind the campaign, was not one of them. But he was not taking defeat as a rejection of grammar schools by the public.

"On the doorstep and when I was knocking people up they kept telling me they wanted a grammar school. This result was about voting against the national tide."

Labour in Milton Keynes - the largest party with 30 of the 51 seats - is committed to preserving non-selective education.

It is currently challenging in the courts the decision by Buckinghamshire to build a grammar school in Milton Keynes. The appeal was delayed twice last week and has not yet been given another date.

Mr Dransfield said: "Milton Keynes is an example of what could happen elsewhere in the country. If John Major wants grammar schools, Milton Keynes is the type of resistance he would get. My advice to him is that if he really wants more grammar schools then do it through grant-maintained status.

"If grammar schools came in through GMS they would be independent of the local authority and I think you would soon then judge their popularity."

Milton Keynes could therefore be a crucial test of the Government's determination to establish new grammar schools. With virtually all LEAs likely to oppose such plans - and key metropolitan councils without a single Tory voice - the policy seems to have little chance of success in the short term.

In Trafford, where there are selective schools, Labour took six seats from the Conservatives to gain overall control. Previously the authority had been hung with Labour running education.

The new administration is keen to scrap the borough's selective schools but has pledged that any move will be based on the party's national policy of consulting parents through local ballots.

In Solihull, where there has been fierce opposition to the Government's nursery voucher scheme, the Tories lost four seats.

They now have the same number of seats as Labour, while the Liberal Democrats hold 12, the Ratepayers four, Independents two and there is one vacancy.

Ken Meeson, the Conservative group leader in Solihull lost his seat after 12 years. He said there was hostility to nursery vouchers in the borough and parents feared the 100 per cent provision for four-year-olds and 70 per cent provision for three-year-olds in Solihull could be jeopardised.

"Vouchers weren't the only reason that people voted against the Conservatives, but they certainly were for some of the parents with small children."

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