In recent years Londoners became accustomed to the inside of a polling booth as Brexit dominated the city’s political platform.
In next week’s local elections, the agenda will be far closer to home as Merton residents take to the polling stations once more.
The borough has witnessed Labour victories at the last two local elections, with the party gaining 49% of the votes and 36 seats in 2014 compared to the Conservative’s 20 seats and 31% of the votes. This was a gain of eight seats for Labour and a loss of seven for the Conservatives.
As Thursday May 3 approaches, two of Labour’s senior councillors will not be standing for re-election. Both Ross Garrod, cabinet member for street cleanliness and parking and Katy Neep, cabinet member for children’s services, will not feature in the candidate listing.
Earlier this week, Council Leader Stephen Alambritis shared his thoughts on Labour’s achievements over the past few years.
He said: “I think we’ve been business like, we have borne down on the council tax and made the borough affordable for residents.
“We’ve created 4,400 extra primary school places. Now we’re turning our attention to a brand new secondary school. We are now first in the country for what is called ‘progressing children’ from the age of 11-16.”
He added: “We have invested in all our libraries, we have opened a brand-new library which is unusual as most councils are closing libraries.
“Looked after the vulnerable, children and the elderly. Given hope in these austerity times, brand new library, building a brand-new swimming pool as well.”
Councillor Alambritis said of his future goals: “To make Merton a great place for families, for everyone. To complete the new leisure centre and also protect the freedom pass for older residents. That costs the council £9 million, we’ll continue to fund that.”
He added: “Bringing back AFC Wimbledon to the borough, looking forward to the build of the brand-new stadium, but also making sure that the stadium benefits not just the fans but also the wider area.
“Obviously we also want to build more affordable homes, changing the affordable for local people.”
Highlighting her objectives for the future, Leader of the Opposition Oonagh Moulton said: “Overall, our plan is to make life for residents a little bit better. We are looking at the practicalities of life, so it is the unglamorous side of your everyday life in terms of ensuring that your bins are being collected, that streets are cleaned, that you have a good police presence in Wimbledon.
“Those are probably our major pledges, that pot holes are dealt with and pavements are looked at and all the things which we are all spending our well-earned money on to the council, but really ensuring that we are now going to get some value for money for that money.
“A lot of us and a lot of residents are paying out but aren’t necessarily seeing very basic things done.”
She added: “And generally ensuring there are decent consultations. At the moment people are feeling very much that things are being imposed on them and that consultation isn’t really properly happening.
“For instance, the police station was closed with a very poor consultation. We gathered a large petition of over 5000 signatures, and that was done very quickly. Really across the borough there is a real feeling that people want to retain that police station.
“So, we have the plan there to purchase the police station, which is what the Leader of Hillingdon Council has proposed to do, the Mayor is quite favourable to that and there is likely to be a favourable announcement after the election.”
Councillor Moulton added: “So, I think it comes back to better consultation going forward, ahead of these things happening. A lot of residents do feel a disconnect between what this administration has been doing and their feeling.
“We would want to ensure a change of culture there, that actually we were empowering some of the residents more. More local neighbourhood plans, ensuring that community assets are protected where possible.”
The controversy surrounding the demolition of Merton Hall this week has proved a topical discussion prior to the local elections.
On the subject, Councillor Alambritis said: “We are not demolishing Merton Hall, we are improving it, enhancing it, increasing its capacity so it can be rented out to more people, more organisations and that will facilitate the building of a brand-new secondary school in the centre of the borough.
“I know there has been a lot of anxiety and concern by residents near there but there has also been a lot of misinformation. So, after the elections if we do get back in we will inform people that this is an improvement and enhancement.”
He added: “It is a freehold swap between the owners of Merton Hall, the council, and Elim Church where we want to build the brand-new school, so we are kitting it out in a value for money basis so it’s amenable to a church.
“And where do people go for weddings, fetes, for dominoes for dances? They go to church halls. That’s where everyone goes. So, we are not destroying Merton Hall we are enhancing it.”
On the hall’s demolition, Cllr Moulton said: “We fully support the new secondary school, it is something we have supported since way-back-when. We knew that numbers would be difficult, and it would be hard to expand our existing secondary schools and there was always a gap.
“But we have always said that we do think there were some other sites that were available, and this site is particularly difficult, and it has meant the demolition of a heritage hall which is very sad for a lot of the local residents in that part of South Wimbledon who feel very passionately that their hall is to be demolished.”
She added: “I understand that as, in Wimbledon Park when I first became a councillor, that is what Labour did to Wimbledon Park Hall. So, there is history there.
“And indeed, they closed the library. Now Councillor Alambritis says that Labour never close libraries, well they did. I’m not saying that they are now, but they did. And they don’t have quite the same feeling for some of our heritage some of the time.”
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