Page last updated at 08:41 GMT, Monday, 18 May 2009 09:41 UK

Tories keen to retain popularity

By Peter Henley
BBC South Political Editor

Yachts at the Needles, off the Isle of Wight
Boundary changes have reduced the number of seats from 48 to 40

Some accuse the Isle of Wight of living in the past - its faded Victorian grandeur, the slightly slower pace of life.

But the 4 June elections for its council perhaps give a taste of a political world to come - a Conservative administration elected on a reforming mandate now fighting to retain its popularity.

The hot issue is education. The island has an unusual three tier structure for its schools and it has been argued that this is the cause of under-achievement.

There are 71 schools on the island, serving a population of 140,000.

The council put forward three schemes which would merge schools, create new ones, and most controversially see some closing.

The future of 40 of the 71 was thrown into doubt.

Hundreds of parents took to the streets and councillors resigned from the Conservative group in protest.

The Tories, elected under leader Andy Sutton in 2005 with an overwhelming majority, had said they would examine education but promised not to abandon the three-tier structure.

Protests against plans for the island's schools were held last year

Their manifesto emphasised the importance of small schools to village life.

Liberal Democrats now call the argument over schools an "expensive sham of a consultation" taking the island back to where it started.

Their new manifesto promises an end to the three-tier structure, smaller class sizes and retaining all secondary schools, managed by the communities they serve.

The other big issue is the economy.

The Isle of Wight Council has worked with the South East England Development Agency on schemes such as the regeneration of East Cowes, but unemployment on the island is still higher than the rest of the south of England.

Wind turbines
The loss of wind turbine maker Vestas has dealt the island's economy a blow

Under new Conservative leader David Pugh since 2007 the council launched initiatives to promote the island as an eco-island, including ambitious plans to harness wave power.

A major blow to the local economy came however with the announcement by wind turbine manufacturers Vestas that it intended to end British production with the loss of hundreds of jobs.

Though Conservatives were elected with a majority in May 2005, this time there are boundary changes reducing the number of seats being fought from 48 to 40.

Labour and Independent candidates have also put up in many wards, though not all.

The Isle of Wight has just one MP, the largest constituency in the UK.

Once held by the Liberal Democrats it has been firmly with the Conservatives in recent years.

How the voters now regard the ruling party will be an interesting contest.

In the past Queen Victoria, Lord Tennyson, even Charles Dickens beat a path to the Isle of Wight.

Its varied hills and beaches, agriculture and industry is still a fascinating microcosm of the British isles.

And the election on 4 June will also provide a snapshot of the way voters could hold Conservatives in power to account.



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