Sutton reporter BELLE MONT says that council leader Ruth Dombey is in for some fierce questioning tonight as she is accused again of gerrymandering
With local elections now less than 12 weeks away, the LibDems in Sutton appear to be in total panic, resorting to abusing council-funded public events to push their claims for another term in office.
A string of avoidable disasters – including the botched waste collection switchover to Veolia that spawned the nationally famous #SuttonBinShame hashtag, and the commissioning of the controversial Beddington incinerator — has made the LibDems look vulnerable to losing Sutton Council, which they have run as a virtual one-party state since they took overall control in 1990.
And, ahead of what is expected to be another fiery council meeting tonight, LibDem leader Ruth Dombey is for the second time this year being accused of conducting her party’s campaigning at Council Tax-payers’ expense.
Inside Croydon has seen a copy of an email sent on February 14 by Sutton Council’s head of communications, Martin Szybut. The email tells elected members how the council – at just two weeks’ notice – is to stage a series of roadshows around the borough as part of a relaunched Sutton’s Future Campaign.
Paid for out of Council Tax-payers’ money, this is supposedly a council initiative to talk to residents and get their views on services and priorities. But it comes conveniently just a few weeks before those residents will be going to the polls in local elections on May 3.
“It’s tantamount to gerrymandering and misappropriating officer time for political posturing, and it must cease now,” said Tim Crowley, the leader of the opposition Tories on Sutton Council.
The focus of this campaign is to be the Sutton Local Plan – a statutory consultation document that the council must produce and have signed off by a government inspector. The Local Plan is not meant to be party political in nature.
In his email, council official Szybut writes, “We will soon be launching our latest Sutton’s Future campaign for 2017/18 through to 2019/20. As members will recall, we have run Sutton’s Future campaigns in previous years to engage and consult with residents. This campaign, as with previous phases, will shape the council’s response to the key issues affecting the borough. This year it will be framed within the context of the Sutton Plan.”
Conveniently for the LibDems, all the Sutton’s Future roadshows will be complete by the time purdah kicks in in late March – when councils are more closely restricted in terms of what public events and announcements are made, so as not to influence the election outcome.
Most controversially, the council’s officials have been ordered by the LibDem administration to encourage residents to sign a petition at the roadshows, and online. The petition calls on the government to give the council a “fair deal”. The petition makes no mention that the Liberal Democrats shared power with the Tories at Westminster from 2010 to 2015, ushering in the austerity cuts being implemented today.
Sutton Council has today started a social media campaign with the strapline “Stand up for Sutton. Have your say and secure Sutton’s future”. Nothing political there, of course, especially when encouraging residents to sign a highly politicised petition.
And while the LibDems flagrantly abuse council resources for campaigning on the rates, they have also started shutting down any opposition at public meetings.
The agenda for the Sutton Local Committee meeting this Thursday, March 1, allocates residents just 15 minutes to ask questions of councillors and officers. Meanwhile, 90 minutes has been set aside to allow the nine LibDem councillors to talk about their “past achievements” and their plans for the future.
It is not anticipated that this section of the meeting will include any reference to the LibDem councillor who went AWOL while preparing to make his cage-fighting debut.
Nor is it expected that there will be any discussion of the “deplorable” Sutton LibDem councillor who “lied and lied” while nicking thousands of pounds from a local charity for the elderly…
The Sutton Local Committee covers three wards where Labour is making strong campaign inroads – Sutton West, Sutton Central and Sutton North. Sutton North is the ward of Dombey, her party henchman Stephen Penneck and committee chair Marlene Heron. Heron, as chair, had the final say over the agenda for the meeting.
Each LibDem ward team has been granted a 30-minute platform to talk up the local successes, such as… er… the installation of a roundabout. One project to be presented – the Sutton Gateway – was well under way before the 2014 elections.
Meanwhile, Dombey’s ward team intends to talk up the Northern Gateway, an area adjacent to the Asda supermarket. The area has already benefited from the botched injection of £500,000 of public funds, where one of the ineffectual “initiatives” included painting the frontages of privately owned properties at a cost not unadjacent to £100,000.
Suton’s opposition parties have expressed their anger at this blatant electioneering at council expense. “There is no way the council has had time to properly organise or publicise these events,” Crowley said of the Sutton’s Future roadshows. “It’s a shambles, a thinly disguised case of campaigning on the rates.
“I believe officers have been put under severe pressure by the LibDem leadership to come up with a pre-election project that will help deliver another LibDem council, deliberately setting out to blame all of Sutton’s woes on central government. Residents are waking up to the fact that this simply is not the case, and that many LibDem decisions are having an adverse impact on people’s lives.
“The decision to launch an anti-government petition at council-funded events so close to the elections, within a roadshow that has been hastily organised to suit the LibDems’ timetable, is a blatant abuse of taxpayers’ money. Whether or not you agree with the basis of the petition, the timing stinks.
And Charlie Mansell, a Labour Party candidate in the Beddington North ward blighted by the incinerator, said: “Sutton LibDems are in meltdown at present thanks to continued mismanagement of waste collection, appalling waste of money on botched projects, and the incinerator issues.
“We know from our own campaigning that they are getting a frosty, often hostile reception on the doorstep. But they are so desperate to retain power in Sutton that they will resort to blatantly anti-democratic measures to boost their flagging chances.
“The petition is especially unnecessary and highly dubious at this point in the electoral cycle. The clear and stated aim of the Sutton’s Future campaign is to establish residents’ considered priorities, not to mount a partisan campaign. It beggars belief that officers are being forced to do this.”
Mansell said he would “call on the chief executive of Sutton Council to rein in this blatantly political campaigning on the rates”.
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