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School row hits marginal fight.

One of the region's tightest electoral races was thrown into chaos yesterday when candidates claimed the council was trying to sway the vote.

Parliamentary hopefuls in Newcastle Central say the Liberal Democrat-controlled city council launched a consultation on controversial plans for a city academy just a week before the poll.

The seat is held by Labour but is a major target for the Lib Dems. The two parties have clashed on the plan.

The decision to launch a consultation so close to the election surprised many.

Newcastle City Council last night insisted that the launch of the consultation had been approved by legal and electoral officers, and should not affect the election.

But Jim Cousins, Labour candidate for Newcastle Central, said: "This is a flagrant and disreputable breach of proper procedure."

Clive Harding, a church pastor who is standing for the Newcastle Academy with Christian Values Party, said: "We were completely taken aback and can't understand how this is happening now."

Conservative and Green Party candidates Wendy Morton and Joe Hulm also expressed concerns.

The proposals have proved politically controversial after the Lib Dems went against a manifesto commitment not to have one, but said they had been pressurised by the Labour government. Both Mr Cousins and Liberal Democrat candidate Greg Stone have been heavily involved in the academy debate.

Electoral law prevents the publication of any publicity material by a range of public bodies which may swing the poll in the 28-day "purdah" period before the vote.

But the only recourse open to a candidate who feels purdah has been breached is to take court action.

Last night Mr Stone said: "I was surprised by this. During the campaign, I've not been involved in day-to-day council operations so I knew nothing about this. I've been assured that it complies with all the Government guidelines and had to be done because the council was under pressure from the DfES to start the process."

A spokeswoman for Newcastle City Council said: "We are confident that our consultation on proposals for an academy does not breach rules on publicity during an election period in any way."
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Publication:The Journal (Newcastle, England)
Date:Apr 29, 2005
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