“I was mortified,” James Barber said frankly about the moment he realised there was a school places crisis in Dulwich while his party, the Liberal Democrats, were running the show locally in 2009.
“We were caught out,” he added, and has been campaigning for new schools in the south of the borough ever since.
“I’ve really focused on education because I’d never want to be caught out without enough school places.”
A new Harris Federation primary is due to open in September on the site of the old police station in Lordship Lane and a “fantastic” new Charter secondary school has just been given the green light to open on the site of the old Dulwich Hospital next year.
“Philosophically I resisted the free schools programme, but it’s become a bit of a knight in shining armour,” said the father-of-two, who has been a local ward councillor in East Dulwich for nine years.
In a long-running spat with the Labour-run council, Mr Barber is keen to emphasise that it is the work of the Liberal Democrats which has secured three new schools for the area, in the face of some initial opposition from the council.
“If it hadn’t been for us we wouldn’t have had the Judith Kerr Primary, East Dulwich Harris or Charter and I’m really chuffed we’ve made that happen.”
Mr Barber puts some of the increased pressure on school places locally down to the improved quality of education on offer in recent years.
“In the past parents left just before primary or secondary school. Families choose to stay knowing their kids will go to a good or outstanding school. We have such a diverse community that the kids play off each other and really excel.”
It doesn’t take a maths teacher to calculate the likelihood of a Liberal Democrat victory this coming election and Mr Barber is a mixture of resigned and determined in the face of a national decline in his party’s popularity. “I’d be naive to say it wouldn’t have an impact,” he said, as he battles to make a dent in what has been a safe Labour seat for Dame Tessa Jowell for the last 23 years.
As she is standing down this year, Mr Barber is hoping the Liberal Democrats can close the gap on her impressive majority of 9,000 in 2010.
“We anticipate we’ll come second but Labour are putting on a big campaign, so that gives us heart. There are possibilities in the long term because there’s huge amounts of non-voting.”
“That was a difficult call,” he says of the unpopular decision for the Lib Dems to govern with their near polar opposites, the Tories. But according to Mr Barber, some of the damage has been balanced out by others seeing them as more of a credible contender than they did previously. “It’s about even stevens.”
The Lib Dems are now pitching themselves as the party of the centre ground – cutting less than the Conservatives (£12billion instead of £25billion) but borrowing £70billion less than Labour.
Asked if the £21billion of cuts implemented by the coalition government had been detrimental to the people of Dulwich, Mr Barber replied candidly: “It would be impossible for cuts not to be detrimental.
“I wouldn’t say all decisions were perfect, but what do you do when there’s no money left?” he added.
The ‘Bedroom Tax’ – where council tenants were deducted housing benefit for properties with a spare room – is one policy Mr Barber admits the coalition did not get right.
“We think that was a mistake in hindsight. It should only be if you’ve been offered a place of an appropriate size. It shouldn’t have been for people who can’t move.”
But Mr Barber says government cuts were not to blame for the loss of a police base in Dulwich.
“The Met have been trying to close it for a long time. We’ve led a campaign to save it for twenty years.
“At the moment they hold a surgery next to the photocopier in the library, which is really unprofessional,” added Mr Barber, who is currently trying to secure a more discreet space in an annex next to the library.
The overcrowded railway lines running through the constituency are also on Mr Barber’s agenda as he wants to push for modernised trains, all London services overseen by Transport for London and an extension of the Victoria Line to Herne Hill.
“The biggest drain on people working in London is their journey to work,” said Mr Barber, who committed to political lobbying for the necessary improvements, if elected.
It’s a big ‘if’ but with a cheerful defiance Mr Barber said: “We’re in it to win it, as they say.”