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Why is Leicestershire County Council trying to grab a village school?

Rosie Featherstone, a Conservative member and Leicestershire resident, is dismayed that her Conservative-controlled county council is spending £5.5 million in legal fees to try and seize ownership of a village school.

The Conservative party believes its success at running County Councils proves it is capable of running the country. But evidence from Conservative run Leicestershire County Council shows that it is really the faceless bureaucrats who actually run our affairs. Unchallenged, they drive their own agendas, ignore local communities and bully and bamboozle elected councillors. When the egos of these faceless individuals run out of control, favoritism results, costs burgeon, salaries balloon and budgets explode. Democracy goes out of the window. So who is actually in charge and could they reduce the size of the state?

This September Leicestershire County Council had to cut £70m from its budget inevitably meaning job losses, projects ending and departments closing. At the same Council Cabinet meeting, elected Conservative Councillors nodded through, unchallenged, the escalation of a High Court action against an 800 strong rural community at a minimum cost of £5.5m - all to save the egos and faces of two or three of Leicestershire County Council’s senior managers.

Why did no elected member challenge this and the escalating legal costs? Why did elected members not challenge the accuracy of the information that their County Solicitor gave them? More importantly is there any real evidence to support the claim that the Conservatives, rather than the bureaucrats can run our country efficiently?

The argument in Leicestershire goes back to a previous era when cash was tight. After the war the Council could not afford new schools. The small Breedon on the Hill community came up with a novel idea. They had saved towards a new village hall and the villagers agreed to give their village hall fund to the County Council in return for a new school and shared village hall.  The school used the hall in the daytime and the village in the evening.

For over 40 years this worked well. But in 2005/6 senior managers at Leicestershire County Council wanted total ownership of the school. They decided to throw the villagers out. They first asked their in-house legal team and were told the villagers had the right to stay. They then sought (and subsequently ignored) external barrister’s advice which also upheld the villagers’ rights. Despite this the officers persuaded the Councilors to approve a concerted attempt to sling the community out of its premises. Because the villagers had nowhere else to go, the Council fast discovered they had picked the wrong people to bully. The High Court case started.

The school is home to fewer than 60 children and is worth an estimated £1.5m yet the costs of securing sole ownership are running at £5.5m and are mounting. The Council officers have now decided to stop local people accessing the school field in the evening - a right the people of Breedon have enjoyed since World War 2. This has brought the local Parish Council into the fight and is forcing costs ever upwards.

Worse, there is growing evidence that Council officers are keeping elected members in the dark. The members - all Conservatives - are too intimidated to question what is going on. School Governors opposed to the policy have been suspended, local MPs who question the processes are told to keep their noses out. The few County Councillors who have asked awkward questions have been gagged or have been mischievously reported to the Electoral Commission, been subject to police questioning and have been threatened with legal action.

The Breedon community itself faces significant losses. If they win in Court the Council will pay their legal costs – which actually means the council tax payers of Leicestershire, including people in Breedon, will underwrite these huge charges.  If villagers loose in Court yes insurance will cover the legal bill but the village will loses its only open space and its only meeting hall. But even more importantly, and regardless of the outcome, the people of Breedon, who voted 540 to 17 against the Council’s moves - have lost all faith in democracy. And it will take more than a Conservative victory in the 2010 election to bring that back. Who will call  these so called ‘public servants’ to account?


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