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Tory resurgence in the shires

The Conservatives were trounced nationally, but did well in local elections. Clare Dean and Karen Thornton report.

FIVE education authorities turned blue last week as the Conservatives celebrated bitter-sweet victories in the local government elections.

While their party was trounced nationally in the General Election, they seized control of Cheshire, Dorset, East Sussex, Leicestershire and Norfolk.

The Conservatives gained an additional 120 councillors in elections that seemed all but forgotten in the razzmatazz of the national poll. They now have control of 18 local education authorities.

Just five years ago, Buckinghamshire was the only county in Tory hands and the Conservatives faced the prospect of being wiped out in the shires - their traditional heartlands.

The recovery began in 1997 and continued last week, despite their party's poor showing in the national election, as electors voted for candidates in 45 councils - 34 counties and 11 all-purpose unitary authorities.

Labour lost Cumbria to no overall control, paying the price for the much-criticised handling of the foot-and-mouth crisis, and now runs 14 of the 45 councils which held elections last week.

The Liberal Democrats lost Devon and Somerset, again to no overall control. In all, 13 of the newly-elected councils now have no one party in overall control.

Despite their success, the Tories may not have gained enough to demand the position they covet - chairmanship of the Local GovernmentAssociation's education committee.

On the record, they are upbeat about their prospects. A group spokesman said: "We are following up all the possibilities and looking at how the results will impact on all of them."

But the Tory gains translate into only a slight increase in LGA representation (around 1 per cent) according to its formula based on the number of seats won by a party weighted by the size of the local electorate.

Graham Lane, the current Labour education chairman, believes the Tories will struggle to make the case for having more members on executive committees, never mind an extra chairmanship: "There might be some slight adjustments, with one or two executives having an extra Tory at the expense of the Lib Dems. But Labour is already under-represented, and I don't think they're entitled to another chair at all."

Meanwhile, the LGA's education department also faces a shake-up, as a result of administrative reorganisation.

The association is creating six new divisions to replace the existing 10, including a new "super" department of education and social policy which will also cover housing, social inclusion, health, police and cultural services.

The changes mean that the heads of education and social services will no longer have their own places on the board.

Insiders fear the changes mean the LGA is downgrading education - just as the Government steps up its privatisation agenda in the sector.

up for election last week

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