Leader under fire

OPPOSITION councillors at East Devon have questioned if the council leaders support for Rolle College s purchase was just an election tactic.

OPPOSITION councillors at East Devon have questioned if the council leaders' support for Rolle College's purchase was just an election tactic.

At EDDC's full-council meeting last week, Conservative Ms Sara Randall Johnson answered questions from Lib Dem and Independent members, writes David Beasley.

The questions focused on why, before the election in June, she called for the-then Lib Dem-run county council to dig into their pockets and invest into the Douglas Avenue site for use as a post-16 college and adult training centre.

But, after the election, both the new Conservative administration at County Hall, to which Ms Randall Johnson (pictured) and five other EDDC Tory members were elected and EDDC were noticeably less vocal.

In September, County Hall said they would not pursue the purchase, citing financial pressures.

They added that they felt that the community college could cope with a massive increase in its sixth form, because of the increase of the school leaving age to 19, after all.

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Exmouth councillor Eileen Wragg asked Ms Randall Johnson whether she backed her group's policy not to purchase the site.

Ms Randall-Johnson said: "I urged and encouraged the previous (county) administration... to purchase the site... when it had the oppurtunity to do so.

"I remain bitterly disappointed that the opportunity seems to have passed us by..."

Woodbury Independent councillor Ben Ingham then asked when she lost her commitment for increased post-16 provision in Exmouth and if it was before or after she was elected as a county councillor.

"I have not lost, nor do I intend to lose, my commitment to deliver a sustainable education programme to children aged 16 and over," she said.

Ms Randall Johnson said things were different - the Lib Dems failed to purchase the site and the economic 'landscape' had suddenly changed.

She added that reduced Government funding for refurbishment costs for the site had meant that the 'finely balanced' business had become unsustainable;

"The context for taking a decision on Rolle College has, therefore, since April 1, 2009 (when County Hall made the commitment), fundamentally changed. Anyone who does not recognise this fact is being disingenuous."

Trying to pin down as to why Cllr Randall Johnson had changed her attitude, Cllr Ingham read two statements she had made, one in February and again in September of this year, in an attempt to illustrate how her enthusiasm for the project had nose-dived in just six months.

He then asked why the voters should 'ever trust' the Tories, and Ms Randall Johnson responded by pointing the finger at the Government and how they had 'plundered' budgets to support banks, putting priority areas like education under severe pressure.

She added that experts at County Hall did not 'anticipate' that the projected 38 per cent increase in sixth formers at the Community College - reported in last week's Journal - would put an 'unimaginable' strain on schools as first thought.

"It is important... that (the Government policy from 2013)... is not a raised school leaving age... but a raised participation age...

"...the provision includes education, but equally training in the workplace and apprenticeships.

"...if Rolle College no longer stacks up in terms of the original business plan, there is still a need for us to work with all schools...