ELECTION COUNTDOWN: Hustings held ahead of this year’s local elections here in south London have been noticeably… well, dull. Until Tuesday night over in Carshalton, where Sutton LibDems, fighting to retain control of the council, sent in one of their ‘big hitters’, who duly demonstrated why she’s known as ‘Calamity’ Jayne, as BELLE MONT reports
This was always going to be a tough gig for the Liberal Democrats. Never in the last 30 years have the opposition parties across the borough of Sutton been so well marshalled, and never has a LibDem administration had so many policy own-goals to deal with.
Initially, on arriving at the spectacular and historic setting of All Saints Church in Carshalton, they would have been mildly delighted to discover that the provocative UKIP candidate, Andy Beadle, had pulled out – a motif for his party in general over the last two years.
More importantly, the absence of Nick Mattey would also be a bonus for the LibDems’ chosen representative, Jayne McCoy. Mattey, who is standing as an independent candidate in Beddington North, has been the scourge of the LibDems since he was booted out of the party in 2015 for opposing the incinerator and exposing their close links with Viridor. This week, he had been adamant that he would not attend the hustings because the Wallington Facebook group admins, who had organised the event, had barred him from posting to the page.
But as the large audience took their seats, Mattey arrived in the church, like Banquo’s ghost.
The faces of the assembled LibDems – they’d turned up mob-handed, with around 20 councillors, candidates and party officials to provide McCoy with support – turned as grey as the church’s stone pillars. Only their god could save them now… alas, Tom Brake’s whereabouts were unknown. Someone suggested he’d gone out for a curry.
Mattey, resplendent in his campaign T-shirt, was warmly welcomed by the congregation, like a long-lost friend and ally in a holy battle to rout the LibDems.
The obligatory candidate introductions were as predictable as they were dull, save for one farcical moment. In her address, McCoy claimed that “the LibDems are fully aligned with the Green Party’s environmental aspirations”.
Mark Webb, the Green Party’s member of the panel, nearly fell off his chair. The elephant in the room was the incinerator, and McCoy had just unleashed it. She’s clearly known as “Calamity” Jayne with good reason. The other candidates peered at McCoy, as if they were thinking, “Did she really just say that?”
Webb, a candidate in Wallington North, seems mild-mannered and has a tendency to avoid eye contact with his audience when concentrating on his well-thought out narrative. But now, he became the quiet assassin, shooting well-aimed barbs at McCoy’s claims.
The Wallington Facebook group has 16,000 members, and there was no shortage of them who had taken a pew eager to ask questions of the panel.
The first, about the provision of council housing and protecting open spaces, brought both seriousness and hilarity. McCoy’s assertion that the council was building 93 council houses was challenged by nearly all the candidates.
Mattey pointed out that the supposedly “affordable” houses being built on the former site of sheltered housing at Richmond Green, in his Beddington North ward, were costing £500,000 each to build.
Tim Crowley, Sutton’s Conservative group leader and councillor in Carshalton South and Clockhouse, dismantled the council’s claims of meeting a target of ensuring 35 per cent affordable homes in new developments. The Sutton Point high rise had just 7 per cent affordable housing, while 15 per cent was becoming the norm allowed by the council. Sutton Council needed to hold developers to account, he said. Not something you’d usually expect to hear from a Tory.
Mattey warmed to one of his favourite themes, what he has exposed as the scandal of Richmond Green and the methods used by the LibDem-run council to evict the elderly tenants of the old sheltered bungalows at Richmond Green. Mattey has always maintained that the council’s structural surveys were inaccurate, and that scare tactics had been used to get residents to leave.
“Council engineers claimed that the buildings suffered from subsidence because a V1 flying bomb that had exploded near the bungalows,” Mattey has said. “Some of the residents disputed this, as the bungalows were built in 1955, and they remembered that the Germans had surrendered in May 1945. So either the V1 was fired 10 years after the war ended by a deranged Nazi with a grudge against Beddington. Or someone was trying to scare the residents.”
Mattey further revealed that council officials had even visited the sickbed of one of Richmond Green’s vulnerable, elderly residents, when she was in hospital with pneumonia, to get her to sign a form saying she would vacate her home.
This was where Calamity Jayne shot herself in the foot. Mattey was telling untruths, she said, and then she went on to confirm that council officers had indeed visited the elderly resident in hospital to get her to sign forms. The thread of logic was as strained as the lack of empathy.
Next up came the thorny subject of the Charles Cryer Theatre, which has stood empty since the collapse of the Sutton Theatre Trust in 2016.
Most political parties – but not Sutton’s LibDems – have pledged to save the Cryer, though Ashley Dickenson (standing for the Christian People’s Alliance in Carshalton Central), suggested, bizarrely, that it could become a school.
Resident Nikki Sutton questioned McCoy on the council’s inconsistency in disposing of assets like the theatre. She asked why the council had until very recently demanded a market rate for the Cryer, while at the same time has given a £1million discount to EcoLocal to buy The Lodge and develop it into private flats, because of perceived “social value”.
McCoy, lips tightening, and with a look that could fire up the incinerator, was forced to admit the council had changed its tune on market rent for the theatre, but blamed government cuts. We must surmise it is a coincidence that this change of tune has been announced just before the elections.
By now, even the shell-shocked LibDem contingent had stopped applauding McCoy’s answers. They had become full-time rubber-neckers, watching a political car crash in full motion.
A question about the availability and condition of sports pitches for youngsters was barely answered but brought further hilarity.
For Labour, the perennially polite Ahmad Nawaz Wattoo (who is standing in Wandle Valley) said that his party would support physical activity and would work with local clubs to keep pitches in a proper condition.
Mattey, meanwhile, made a sharp point to prick at the LibDems’ conscience. “The council spent £60,000 sponsoring Chelsea Football Club, which of course needs the money, rather than a local team,” he said.
Crowley noted that Beddington Cricket Club was being asked for a market rent for its ground, but the council would not say what it was. He also noted that the council’s parks maintenance contract with idVerde included a clause that the contractors must deliver profits from park activities, and – sounding like anything other than a Tory – said he would look to renegotiate the contract to ensure profit was not a motive in providing such services. Webb, sounding very much like a Green, rejected out of hand the privatisation of local services.
Dickenson turned the question into a surreal discussion on how to fight obesity and toughen up our children. With the demeanour of a bunny rabbit on diazepam, Dickenson suggested that we needed to let our children take risks – not just by letting them climb trees, but by letting them play near cliffs…
Calamity went for the FibDem default position, and blamed government cuts and austerity.
The next question concerned provision and infrastructure for cycling in the borough.
Crowley accused the council of having an obsession with insisting on hundreds of bicycle racks being included in planning applications, but failing to provide a joined-up network of cycle lanes that residents would feel safe to use on their bikes. Commuter cyclist Webb said the local routes were terrible. “People don’t cycle because it’s dangerous, particularly at the Hackbridge junction,” he said.
Calamity blamed Transport for London for not providing more money.
The first of a round of quickfire questions asked what the parties would do to tackle the increase in flytipping. Crowley noted that the council had not prosecuted anyone for the offence at least seven years, while incurring clean up costs of £1million. Wattoo and Mattey suggested bringing waste services back in-house.
Calamity said that flytipping wasn’t just a problem in Sutton and added, without any discernable irony, that the way to stop them was to… prosecute them.
The penultimate question concerned the shambles of the Veolia waste contract introduced in April 2017. Or what everyone, except the LibDems, refers to as #SuttonBinShame. What would the parties do to get Veolia to do their job? LibDem heads were now between their knees, bracing for impact.
To loud clapping, the Labour, Green, independent and CPA candidates all said they would endeavour to bring the contract back in house. Wattoo took the round’s biggest applause by promising a public inquiry into the procurement process.
Mattey pointed out that the council ignored Veolia’s advice to implement the contract in stages and so brought the debacle on themselves in an attempt to boost recycling figures before the elections. Crowley promised a £10 refund on Council Tax for missed collections, which he claimed could be funded by the contractual fines on Veolia, and said the Tories would enforce the contract rigorously and end it if Veolia continued to fail.
Calamity blamed government cuts, and Veolia for not having enough staff. Finally wrapping the car fully around the lamppost, she also admitted that the council could not presently even prove when a collection was “missed”, and that the dysfunctional contract might have to be terminated.
The final question asked what each party’s policy was towards St Helier Hospital. While there was unanimous support for retaining all services at St Helier, Tory Crowley ripped into McCoy and accused the LibDems of lying over the claim that they were “investing” £28million at the hospital. The local NHS Trust decided to sell off its disused Sutton Hospital land in small parcels many years ago, and the money was always going to go towards a planned £12million refurbishment of St Helier.
The Rev Kev allowed McCoy to respond. Spluttering, Calamity claimed this was all a LibDem idea, and that the council invested by buying two tranches of land, including for the new Harris Academy, and forcing the Trust to spend the money on refurbishing St Helier.
This defence has some severe problems. Sutton Council bought three tranches of land, not two. The investment by the Trust is just £12million, not the £28million claimed by the LibDems. The Trust’s finance board minutes show the refurbishment programme was in development before Sutton bought its first tranch of land.
And the whole game changed when Sutton’s supposed Cancer Hub link-up for land purchase failed as the Institute of Cancer Research could not legally buy the land, so Sutton had to buy it itself. A lie exposed indeed…
Fewer than half of the wounds inflicted on the LibDems in the debate came from the other five candidates. Every single candidate landed a blow, one way or another, while promoting positive policies. But most of the damage on the LibDems’ reputation was self-inflicted as an unusually hesitant and unconfident McCoy floundered repeatedly. The LibDems, who hold 43 of the borough’s 54 seats, will certainly have to rely on their considerable core vote if they are to retain control of Sutton Council on May 3.
The fact that the LibDems have suffered immense electoral damage during the campaign manifested itself when, during the final addresses, Calamity Jayne really lost the plot.
She suggested the LibDems were running a “positive” campaign – such as, er, claiming Labour voters are switching to LibDems to keep the Tories out – and that there was widespread misrepresentation of the LibDems on social media.
An incandescent McCoy then produced a copy of Inside Croydon’s new Inside Sutton promotional publication, describing it as an “illegal leaflet, unattributed and full of untruths”. Goodness knows, then, what Calamity will make of the entirely legitimate, well-sourced and completely accurate second edition of Inside Sutton, which is due out this weekend.
But you can see where this is going.
If the LibDems lose the election, it won’t be their fault – they’ll blame Inside Croydon and Inside Sutton.
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