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Tory to become voice of LEAs

June 7 could bring some costly losses for Labour at local government level while the Conservatives are expected to make gains in traditional Liberal Democrat country. Nic Barnard and Karen Thornton report on the likely winners and losers

A MEMBER of the Tory team which developed plans to strip councils of school powers is poised to become the voice of local education authorities.

The Local Government Association's controlling Labour group plans to hand the Tories the chair of one of its major committees after next week's elections - probably education.

The new education spokesman would be Wiltshire councillor Peter Chalke, a member of the team which developed the "free schools" policy.

The switch would deprive a new Labour government of the services of Labour education chair, Graham Lane, who has been a go-between for ministers in talks with the unions over workload.

The talks are about to enter a critical stage. LGA officials, unions and the Department for Education and Employment will draw up proposals in the autumn to limit teachers' workload. Employers and unions are striving to agree proposals.

Unions want limits on working hours and contact time in the talks which Education Secretary David Blunkett set in train before the General Election was called.

Under the LGA's complex arrangements, committee chairs are divied up according to parties' share of the national vote.

The Conservatives are expected to make gains in next Thursday's poll, taking place in 45 education authorities. Mr Chalke, leader of Wiltshire council and Tory education spokesman at the LGA, said the Tories would take on another major committee if they polled well.

"We would like to take education. It's an area where we feel we've got good policies." he said.

He added that workload negotiations would not pose a problem because Tories supported reducing the bureaucratic burden on teachers. "They have got to have their professionalism respected," he said.

Turnout in last year's local elections was a dismal 29.6 per cent, rising to just over a third in London. In 1997, when elections coincided with the general election, turnout averaged 73.2 per cent in the shires and 69.7 per cent in unitary authorities. Many of those councils go to the polls again this year.

Pundits had predicted significant losses for Labour if the national and local elections were held separately.

Colin Rallings and Michael Thrasher, directors of the Local Government Chronicle's elections centre at Plymouth University, said Lancashire, Northamptonshire, Nottinghamshire and Staffordshire could have gone Tory, while Bristol city, Cumbria, Derbyshire and Northumberland could have become hung.

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