Already a source of frequent ridicule in a national satirical magazine, now Sutton’s LibDem council leader is facing a new threat to her power as challengers emerge from Labour, as CARL SHILTON reports
What’s been a bad few weeks for Ruth Dombey, the leader of Sutton’s Liberal Democrat-controlled council, has undoubtedly just got a whole lot worse.
Not only are three of Dombey’s most devoted followers abandoning the cause – with councillors “Bogus” Ben Andrew, Hanna Zuchowska and Manuel Abellan all jumping ship – but the council is suffering some needlessly self-inflicted and lasting damage to its credibility – all thanks to the hubris of the council leader herself.
Dombey’s own sniffy response to a critical question about Sutton appearing 30 times in the Rotten Boroughs column of Private Eye managed to generate appearance No31.
And last week, Dombey got her and her council into the pages of the nation’s best-read news magazine for a 32nd time.
Dombey had whinged that she found it “regrettable” that “anonymous individuals” were somehow trying to “sully the council’s reputation without evidence to substantiate their allegations”. Perhaps Dombey’s never heard of Ian Hislop?
“How many times has the council written to Private Eye and asked for corrections to Rotten Borough stories?” they asked.
This was the official council FoI response:
“The London Borough of Sutton has never written to Private Eye to issue corrections regarding claims made in their Rotten Borough section.”
Nuff said, according to Lord Gnome.
With Sutton’s reputation nose-diving under Dombey and her little band of incinerator fans, their cause won’t be helped as they approach local elections in May without the hefty assistance of any LibDem MPs in the borough.
For four decades, since the Liberal Democrats first won control of the council in 1990, Sutton has been a one-party state, with the financial heft and political support of the borough’s two MPs from 1997 until, in the case of Paul Burstow in Sutton and Cheam, 2015.
And Tom Brake’s defeat in Carshalton and Wallington at the 2019 General Election has taken away Dombey’s last vestige of cover on the national stage – not to mention considerable sums out of the public purse diverted into her campaign war chest.
So you can imagine Dombey’s dismay last week when it was announced that Sheldon Vestey, a constant thorn in the council’s side over the disgraceful manner that his fellow residents on New Mill Quarter have been treated by the council-owned heating provider, SDEN, will be running as a Labour candidate in the local elections on May 5.
Vestey, who has been a campaigning chair of the NMQ Residents’ Association, is standing in the new, two-seat Hackbridge ward alongside Dave Tchiligirian.
Labour have not managed to win a seat on Sutton Council since 2002, but Vestey and Tchiligirian in the re-configured ward where the demographics appear more favourable could help to end that long absence as Sutton voters become increasingly disillusioned with Dombey and her LibDem cohorts.
Vestey says that in his time as NMQRA chair he has been “targeted by individuals linked to the council/councillors to include anonymous threats, emails to my work, charities I volunteer for, and even screws in the tyres of my car at my home”. Inside Sutton understands that the attacks against Vestey have resulted in the police being called in, more than once.
The residents’ association has more than 500 members, many of whom may support their erstwhile chair (Vestey is standing down from the apolitical organisation) who has managed to obtain hundreds of thousands of pounds of compensation and more than £1million in repairs and remedies arising, as Vestey puts it, “out of dodgy new build practices”.
In the absence of their absentee LibDem councillors – “Bogus” Ben Andrew was at one point banned from delivering his LibDem leaflets in the New Mill Quarter – Vestey has stepped up to organise several community initiatives including visiting artisan food vans and staging a neighbourhood fete.
“It provided an eye-opener into the system we work in, as I saw how housing associations can treat their tenants, and the punitive way in which the system belittles people,” Vestey told Inside Sutton.
“As issues in my area were apparent outside of my immediate private estate, I helped to build back the local Neighbourhood Watch, taking a lead on moped-enabled crime in my area as well as other issues, directly leading to the arrest of individuals carrying weapons.
“What I learned through all of this is that society runs on the goodwill of people and we need people to step up to do this. I’m pleased to announce that I will now be standing for election in the May 2022 council elections for the Labour Party.
“Now more than ever, we need good people willing to get stuck in and make things better.
“Before May, remember to register to vote and if you’re one of my neighbours or nearby residents, I’d be honoured to have you vote for me.”
In 2018, at the last local elections, Dombey held on to control at Sutton Council despite the LibDems losing 12 councillors, with the Tories gaining 10 and independent residents in Beddington North winning two.
Where this could all get very interesting in a few weeks is that with a rejuvenated Labour effort and more Dombey-inspired disaffection, Sutton could be heading for its first “no overall control” council in 32 years.
And Dombey’s own council seat in Sutton North is among the target wards for Sutton’s Conservatives.
Labour appears to be aiming for the seats it thinks it could win, in Hackbridge and Sutton Central, where they missed out by fewer than 150 votes four years ago.
Dombey must be hoping she makes no further appearances in the pages of Private Eye between now and May 5…
Read more: Dombey in crisis as two more LibDem councillors quit
Read more: Nearly two-thirds of Croydon waste is going to the incinerator
Read more: Heat network’s plan depends on 75 homes that don’t exist
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