Defending the indefensible, whether it is the dodgy deals over the council’s SDEN heat network, the appalling treatment of families with SEND children, or some of the ruling group’s more under-hand conduct, has taken its toll, writes our Civic Offices reporter, BELLE MONT
The finalised candidate list for Sutton’s council elections on May 5 shows that an astonishing 16 of Ruth Dombey’s Liberal Democrat platoon of 33 councillors are jumping ship.
It is an unusually high rate of attrition, which some sources put down to the strain on many older councillors of the past two years of trying to run the council during a pandemic. Other, less charitable, interpretations say that there’s only so much of Dombey’s controlling iron fist anyone can take – as was reflected in the heartfelt message from one of those standing down and which was read out in Parliament last week, when a departing councillor said that they felt “betrayed, let down and hurt”.
The 16 departees figure includes Dombey’s deputy, Manuel Abellan, who quit in January in order to take up a new job, without first seeing through an unfinished one as the council’s environment lead.
And the list of LibDem councillor departures might have been longer still.
Sources say that two veterans who were set to stand down – Muhammad Sadiq and Jean Crossby – are standing for another four-year term after they were “begged to stay on”, to help provide some continuity.
The scandal-hit council has been plagued by accusations of fraud and mismanagement over its SDEN heating network in Hackbridge, and has lost voters’ trust by ignoring consultation results on parking and road closures. The appalling handling of special education needs and disability (SEND) children was investigated by BBC’s Panorama. This year, the LibDem-run council notched up its 32nd appearance in Private Eye’s Rotten Boroughs column.
But it’s not plain sailing for Sutton’s Tories either.
The Liberal Democrats have been the majority group on Sutton Council since 1986. Until the Partygate scandal broke at the turn of the year, it was assumed the Conservatives would finally take control of Sutton Council in May, and comfortably.
The backlash against the Tories nationally has opened the way for a range of election outcomes, with the emergence of a dozen independent candidates seen as possibly squeezing the vote in key wards and allowing the LibDems to sneak back into power.
Two Conservative councillors have opted not to stand for re-election: Elliot Colburn has become MP for Carshalton and Wallington since being elected to the council in 2018, so he won’t be a candidate in Cheam, where another Tory councillor, Holly Ramsey, will also be missing from the ballot paper. She has moved to Croydon, where she has immediately been installed as a council election candidate in a uber-safe Tory ward.
Sutton has undergone electoral boundary changes since 2018 and now has 20 wards rather than 18, increasing the number of councillors overall by one, to 55. Five wards – Hackbridge, St Helier East, Stonecot, Worcester Park North and Worcester Park South – are becoming two-member wards.
The LibDems currently have 32 councillors, the Tories 18 and the Beddington independents three, with one vacancy (Abellan’s).
Labour, like the Conservatives, also have a full slate of candidates but the name of veteran former councillor Charlie Mansell is, for the first time this century, absent from the ballot papers.
Three independents are standing in each of Beddington (what used to be Beddington North), Wallington South, Wallington North, and in South Beddington and Roundshaw (formerly Beddington South).
There is a further single independent candidate in the new North Cheam ward, Renos Samson, who stood in the 2021 London Mayoral elections under the anti-vax “libertarian” Let London Live party, led by conspiracy theorist Piers Corbyn.
There’s also a celebrity connection in the election: standing in North Cheam for Labour is Jane Davies, daughter of the late Windsor Davies, the It Ain’t Half Hot Mum actor who lived in Carshalton Beeches.
Beddington’s three independent councillors have been well-regarded since Tim Foster and Jillian Green joined the rebellious Nick Mattey on the council in 2018.
The Viridor incinerator now looms large in the ward, spewing out its polluting clouds, while the council’s treatment of the area as south London’s dumping ground continues unabated. Mattey remains unflinching in his savage battery of his former LibDem colleagues, while Foster has proven himself to be one of the most analytically effective members of the council’s committees.
Neighbouring South Beddington and Roundshaw has 14 candidates, including sitting councillors LibDem Drew Heffernan, who has decamped (some say “done a runner”) from Worcester Park, and Tory Ryan Stoneman, who has migrated to his home ward from Stonecot.
The ‘retiring’ LibDem councillors
Manuel Abellan (resigned Jan 2022)
One curiosity on the South Beddington list is Patrick Magnus. This is none other than former councillor Patrick McManus, who resigned his Belmont seat soon after being elected in 2018, conveniently clearing the way for Neil “Father Jack” Garratt to make a speedy return to the council.
Also on the ballot there is former London Assembly Mayoral candidate, Steven Kelleher, of the Social Democrat Party (yes, they still exist. Who knew? Who cared?). Kelleher was an unsuccessful General Election candidate in Eltham in 2019 when he was a candidate for the Brexit Party.
Moral was well-liked among her council colleagues, including the opposition. She made her contempt for her own party well-known, threatening to spill the beans after the election.
Her gripes include having to cover additional casework for her supposedly-retiring colleague Jean Crossby, who was eventually persuaded to stand again. Moral is also known to have been furious at the LibDems’ handling of the parking strategy in St Helier, which led to the creation of a 5,300-strong Facebook group and saw more than 300 angry residents attend a Council meeting to oppose the policy.
Carshalton Central is regarded as a LibDem stronghold, but the Greens’ Verity Thomson is gaining credit for distributing genuinely useful information-based materials to residents.
In Hackbridge, Labour is confident of winning a first council seat since 2002. Local residents Sheldon Vestey and Dave Tchilingirian have been very active locally, Vestey campaigning against the shoddy SDEN heat network imposed on residents of New Mill Quarter, and Tchilingirian a leading light in the Hackbridge and Beddington Corner Neighbourhood Development Group which opposed the incinerator.
Notable by omission is the absence of any Green candidate in Hackbridge, so close to the incinerator: are the Greens stepping aside to give Labour an easier run? The Greens are fielding 14 candidates across the borough.
In Belmont, Sam Bourne, a former LibDem councillor in Nonsuch ward, is seeking a return to the council. But her hopes look slim. Bourne lost her seat in 2018 by the drawing of lots, to Tory James McDermott-Hill. Bourne is the only returning losing LibDem candidate from 2018.
Also shunted towards a seemingly impossible mission in Belmont is Sam Weatherlake, who has been moved from his safe LibDem ward in the Wrythe. So there might yet be a 17th casualty among Dombey’s sitting councillors.
Weatherlake was moved seemingly to offer a safe seat on the council for Bobby Dean, the Liberal Democrats’ prospective parliamentary candidate in Carshalton and Wallington.
Dean’s partner, Gemma Munday, is herself a LibDem candidate in St Helier East, a target ward for the Tories and also possibly Labour.
The names of partners of several sitting councillors and other candidates appear among the nominations across the borough, but many are only listed as “paper candidates”, where their partner is fielding a full slate but has no real intention of contesting that particular ward.
A Sutton LibDem campaigns manager is standing in St Helier West. Pete Chubb cleaned up his social media accounts some time ago, but not before it was revealed that he has previously urged people on Twitter to vote Labour, and that he had, apparently, put assorted vegetables up his bum. The lad sounds like a walking foodbank.
Another candidate in St Helier West, Peter Mead, is standing for the Green Party. Many years ago he stood as a Tory.
Sutton Central is another three-way election battleground next month. Labour ran the LibDems extremely close in 2018, and this time around have another energetic team.
Sitting councillors Ali Mirhashem and Rich Clare are not standing. Clare was appointed vice-chair of the environment and neighbourhood committee upon his election in 2018, only to be dropped after a few weeks.
This may be not be unrelated to his decision within days of his election to join a march organised by KOSHH – the unions-backed group dedicated to keeping St Helier Hospital’s A&E and other services on site. Dombey has had Clare on the naughty step ever since.
The only LibDem standing again in Sutton Central is David Bartolucci. Bartolucci is renowned for his strange antics in online meetings, usually due to his forgetting to turn off his camera. He was also behind an anonymous Twitter account used to troll his Tory opponents, a serious breach of protocol for which he escaped censure. In 2021 a prominent Labour councillor in Southwark resigned his cabinet post for similar behaviour.
For the Tories, former councillor Barry Russell is standing. Russell is a director of the Sutton Housing Partnership, the council’s arms’ length social housing company.
Ruth Dombey, the LibDems leader, has been a councillor for 20 years, but it was a close-run thing for her in Sutton North four years ago and the Tories are expected to throw everything they have at winning the ward and deposing the council leader. Dombey’s trusty sidekicks, Steve Penneck and Marlene Heron, are stepping down. THis will definitely be one to watch out for at the count.
The boundary changes caused some mirth with the creation of a ward with “East Cheam” in its name. Sutton West and East Cheam’s battle between the Tories and Liberal Democrats should also be one to watch. The nakedly ambitious Luke Taylor – he has tried to get elected to parliament in Battersea and Mitcham and Morden, failing both times – is hoping to unseat the Conservatives’ Catherine Gray, the opposition’s lead on housing and business who has been a thorn in the side of Dombey’s deputy, “Calamity” Jayne McCoy.
Taylor has already shamelessly claimed in election leaflets that the LibDems were responsible for stopping a proposed road closure in the ward in 2020. In fact, the proposal had come from the LibDem-controlled council, was backed by LibDem councillor Kevin Burke, and was only overturned after a 1,600-signature petition was raised by Gray and her party colleague Lily Bande. Lying in election material, whether in personal attacks or dodgy bar charts, has been a LibDem staple in Sutton elections for years.
Sutton South was a split ward in 2018, with one Conservative and two Liberal Democrat councillors elected. It will again have the name Shields on its ballot paper in 2022, but sitting Tory councillor Tony is this time standing in Cheam. The Shields now standing in the ward is his wife Vikki. Tony Shields has had a strong personal vote in Sutton South since he was first elected 20 years ago, so the inclusion of the name may pay dividends. If the Tories want to take the council, then wards like this – where Mayor Trish Fivey and flatulent Richard Clifton are seeking re-election – must be won.
Carshalton South and Clockhouse has been a split ward for many years. The results though have always been close, with two Tories, Tim Crowley and Moira Butt, being elected in 2018 alongside LibDem Amy Haldane. Haldane spent most of the past four years living in north London, but has returned in time to be eligible to stand again.
The Wrythe could be another battleground ward. LibDem parliamentary hopeful Bobby Dean has a record of spectacular failure in previous elections where he has been involved, having lost in Lewisham Deptford in 2017 and 2019, while claiming to have masterminded his party’s social media campaign for the 2021 London Mayoral elections. Those were the elections where the Liberal Democrats made such an impact that they lost their deposit. Jed Dwight, the chair of Sutton Tories, has opted to stand in The Wrythe instead of his current Stonecot ward, so the LibDems have a serious fight on their hands.
The new two-councillor ward of Worcester Park South should be a Tory shoo-in; the LibDems have included the Mayor’s daughter, Lauren Fivey, in their candidates.
Worcester Park North, including the key Hamptons estate, is where Jenny Batt, the LibDems’ lead for SEND children, is standing, taking on the Tory opposition leader, Tom Drummond.
A leaked internal email revealed that the LibDems are pumping significant extra council resources into the ward, effectively to try to buy votes with public money in an effort to unseat Drummond. But Batt’s utter failure to handle the SEND crisis in Sutton could count against her.
Locally popular Liz Martin is a Labour candidate in the ward, and is another who has campaigned vociferously against road closures and consultation failures.
With four weeks to go, the fate of Sutton Council appears finely balanced. Sutton’s LibDems are skilled, if often dirty, campaigners with a strong core vote, while the rejuvenation of Labour in certain pockets and the rise of independent candidates means there’s everything to fight for on May 5.
Read more: Senior LibDem dined with Viridor days before incinerator vote
Read more: MP Colburn in ‘angry’ row with Sutton over faulty heat network
Read more: Questions to be asked over £1.5m-worth of Viridor ‘gifts’
Read more: SEND campaigners fight on after Panorama revelations
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