Cllr Tom Drummond is the Leader of the Conservative Group on Sutton Council
Sutton is a leafy green borough on the outskirts of greater London; a borough where the Lib Dems have been running the council since 1986. When I moved here in 2006, my Conservative voting neighbour told me, “I always vote Tory, but locally I’m Lib Dem, they do a good job.” This was the message that was instilled and accepted by both old and new residents.
Then came a change; cracks began to show in the council. The Lib Dems had stopped listening to residents, complacency had set in, and they began to follow and promote their own ideology against the wishes of residents.
One of the many cracks that appeared was in 2015 when the council chose to sell a long lease on a historic building for £600,000; the price was circa £1m below the market valuation. If things couldn’t get worse, they had sold the building to a charity whose director and trustee was the then sitting Lib Dem MP for Carshalton and Wallington. This type of laissez faire attitude with the council’s assets began to make residents question, could things be better? And that has been our task ever since – to show them it could be.
It was soon after this that the green shoots of recovery for the Conservatives began to come through. In 2015, Paul Scully became the first Conservative MP for Sutton and Cheam since 1997.
By the time of the local elections in 2018, the Liberal Democrats were defending their policy on bin collections. For the first time, residents were expressing their anger on social media with #Suttonbinshame trending nationally. We had a successful night, bucking the trend in London by increasing councillors from eight to 18. However, this does not tell the full story; there were a number of wards where we lost out by single digits – and overall in the borough, we missed taking control by two per cent.
The Conservative march has continued and in 2019 the long standing Lib Dem MP for Carshalton and Wallington, Tom Brake, was unseated by Elliot Colburn. Then in the 2021 London Assembly elections, Neil Garatt, for the first time, won every single ward in the borough.
Looking forward to May 2022, there is a feeling that change is needed. The extra scrutiny provided by the increase in the 2018 Conservative Group has meant the cracks that appeared in 2015 are now gaping chasms of incompetence. The Lib Dems have reacted to this; however their own agenda still dominates their decisions at the expense of residents’ wishes.
It has long been said, the Sutton Liberal Democrats “Consult, Consider and Ignore” – and this is evidenced in recent consultations for controlled parking measures. In my ward, Worcester Park, 93 per cent of residents in the statutory consultation objected to a Controlled Parking Zone being implemented (736 against versus 67 for). The Lib Dems refused to listen and went ahead with the parking restrictions. This became a theme as they consulted across the borough on parking, school streets, and LTNs. The consultations have been biased and manipulated to give the result they want rather than what residents are telling them.
Another example of the gross incompetence surrounds SDEN (Sutton Decentralised Energy Network); a Council owned company providing heating and hot water to a ward in the borough. Since its inception, there have been question marks over the financial modelling. As a result of a Conservative group motion at Full Council, an independent investigation was commissioned. The conclusions were damning: 80 houses that were not built (or even planned) were used in the financial modelling. A Government grant that was no longer available was also included in the business plan. The investigation found there had been “optimism bias”, which was described in the aftermath by the deputy leader as the council being a “bit over optimistic.” This has cost the Sutton taxpayer millions of pounds.
So, five months from the election, is Sutton a foregone conclusion in 2022? Sadly the answer is no. The Lib Dems see this as the crown jewel of their London councils. I’m in no doubt that resources will be called in from neighbouring boroughs and the local party will do anything and everything they can to retain control.
In recent elections we’ve experienced how low the Lib Dem’s will go to win. Dirty tricks do not describe the depths they stooped to in 2019, defaming a long-standing councillor. I fully expect them to revert to this type of electioneering again; we’re already seeing the personal attacks, negative campaigning, and I’m in no doubt that highly questionable tactics are planned. As I’ve been told many times, “the Sutton Lib Dems are bad at running councils but good at winning elections.”
So do I feel confident? Yes. Are we getting a positive reception on the door? Yes. Is complacency going to set in? Absolutely not! Sutton needs change which the local Tories can give. In the run up to May, we will campaign as hard as ever and ensure Sutton has two Conservatives MPs, one Conservative GLA member, and finally, after decades, a Conservative run council.