Why is local politics so much dirtier than national politics? Is it because the players are fighting over relatively trivial matters, like Oxbridge dons competing for college posts? As Henry Kissinger said, ‘University politics are vicious precisely because the stakes are so small.’ Or is it because local politicians are less likely to be exposed to the disinfectant of publicity? Well, I intend to remedy that.
Last week, a Conservative councillor in Hounslow drew my attention to an election leaflet distributed by three prospective Labour councillors that contained the following misrepresentation under the headline ‘Chiswick School loses out to Free School’: ‘Chiswick School was on the list for Hounslow’s Building Schools for the Future money. The school spent a lot of time and effort on preparing plans for further improvement. That money has now been taken away by the West London Free School in Hammersmith for renovating and refurbishing their buildings.’
This is wrong on so many levels it’s hard to know where to begin. It’s true that one of the first things Michael Gove did in office was to cancel the BSF (Building Schools for the Future) programme and, as a result, many schools that were expecting to be rebuilt were disappointed.
But it was cancelled because it was a scandalous waste of money. By 2010, £8.65 billion had been spent on just 310 schools. That’s an average of £28 million per refurbishment. That’s 20 per cent higher than it costs to rebuild a school in Denmark, 25 per cent higher than in Sweden and 40 per cent higher than in Ireland. Had it not been cancelled, the total cost of the programme would have been £55 billion.
To claim that this money was, in effect, put to one side and then spent on free schools is nonsensical. For one thing, the total capital budget of the first 24 free schools, of which the West London Free School was one, was £120 million. That’s an average of £5 million per school, meaning the present government is able to set up five new schools for less than it cost the last government to refurbish a single existing school.
But the money the Department for Education hasn’t wasted as a result of cancelling the BSF programme wasn’t stored in a bank vault somewhere, as these three prospective councillors seem to think. Rather, it’s money that the government won’t have to borrow. It’s a saving, not a deposit. Therefore, by definition, it hasn’t been ‘spent’ on anything else.
Now, it’s possible that when Michael Gove went to George Osborne with his begging bowl during the 2010 public spending review, asking him to fund the building of 24 free schools, he got a favourable response because he’d shut down the BSF programme. But that’s not the same thing as Gove taking money from a fund intended for school refurbishment and spending it on free schools.
Even if that is the way it worked, which it isn’t, it’s idiotic to claim that money allocated to a local authority school in Hounslow was taken away and given to a free school in Hammersmith. What the prospective councillors are claiming is that when the BSF programme was cancelled, the money wasn’t merely set aside, it was divided up into tiny little pots with a label indicating which school it was due to be spent on and then, when Gove wanted to fund the West London Free School, he took the money out of the pot labelled ‘Chiswick School’, even though it’s several miles away and in a different borough.
It’s preposterous. My ten-year-old daughter has a better grasp of how the Department for Education allocates capital funding than these three would-be councillors.
Do they really think any of this? Not even Labour councillors are that ignorant, are they? They are hoping to persuade parents of children at Chiswick School to vote Labour. The message is: Nasty Mr Gove stole money from your children and gave it to a bunch of privileged, middle-class children in Hammersmith.
What’s unforgivable is that they clearly don’t care about the impact this sort of campaigning has on the local community. So what if their leaflet sets family against family and child against child? To them, that’s acceptable collateral damage.
The authors of this disgraceful leaflet were Crispin Flintoff, Nada Jarche and Mendora Ogbogbo. They should be ashamed of themselves.
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Toby Young is associate editor of The Spectator.
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