Wandsworth school 'deal' angers residents

WANDSWORTH council, which did not levy a poll tax last year, has been accused of 'selling off the family silver' by closing down a primary school and leasing it to a private preparatory school.

Residents of the Putney Vale council estate opposed the closure of Beaver's Holt in July, but were told that falling numbers meant the school was no longer economically feasible.

According to Labour councillors who represent the ward, parents were appalled to learn that The Hall preparatory school moved into Beaver's Holt last week, while their children were preparing to travel by bus to another council primary school a mile down the A3.

'It is astonishingly insensitive, a real slap in the face for parents,' Fred Ponsonby, deputy leader of the Labour group on the council and a councillor for the area, said. 'We believe there was a case for retaining the school. The estate is in an isolated position, with Wandsworth Common on one side, a cemetery on another and the A3 on the third. Now children have to be bussed a mile away while they see other kids going into their old school.'

The school row has come as the council prepares to auction off five playgrounds, which it says are either no longer used by children or are unsafe, but which some parents have asked to be retained. The council adds that it spent pounds 1.3m last year on refurbishing other play areas.

Earlier decisions to introduce charges for home helps and to privatise school catering and cleaning services have added to speculation that the council is trying to limit the impact of the new council tax. 'It will definitely not be zero like it was under the community charge,' a spokeswoman said. 'But we are always looking at ways of keeping costs down and making sure there are no services surplus to demand. We are a cost-effective council. There are no particular cost-cutting exercises for the council tax.'

The council will not speculate publicly on what its council tax level will be but the last estimate to its Policy and Finance Committee in July was pounds 384, based on figures which it says will have changed by now. Taking into account possible government relief, Labour expects the average household charge to be about pounds 200.

'They're selling off the family silver to keep that figure as low as possible while cutting essential services,' Tony Belton, the Labour group leader, said. 'This is still a council operating on Thatcherite dogma. Beaver's Holt school has been leased until January, but we fully expect a sale to follow.'

James Donald-Adkin, who is chairman of the council's property committee, agreed that a sale would follow, but to the highest commercial bidder, not necessarily to The Hall school. 'We have 6,000 surplus school places in the borough and it was considered that Beaver's Holt was no longer viable,' he said. 'The Hall has a fixed-term contract until January when we will examine the position to see if anyone else is interested. Our aim is to maximise the income for the council.

'We will be considering other possible offers. In the meantime, the short-term lease is not only providing an income at an attractive commercial rate, it is also saving us money on security and heating,' Mr Donald-Adkin added.