Focus on Braintree

Political Editor Graham Dines watches the campaign in Braintree, the second most marginal Labour seat in Britain.BRAINTREE is one of the fastest growing towns in Britain, a fact recognised by the Boundary Commission that has redrawn the electoral map of Mid Essex and given the district an extra MP from 2006 onwards.

Political Editor Graham Dines watches the campaign in Braintree, the second most marginal Labour seat in Britain.

BRAINTREE is one of the fastest growing towns in Britain, a fact recognised by the Boundary Commission that has redrawn the electoral map of Mid Essex and given the district an extra MP from 2006 onwards.

This election will be the last time the people of Witham and Braintree elect the same MP – the two communities then go separate ways with the name of Witham at last being recognised in its own right in Parliament.

For now, they remain linked in the Braintree constituency, the second most marginal Labour seat in the UK and a prime target for the Conservatives.

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Indeed, if the Tories do not win this time, there will be a major question mark over the ability of the Conservative Party to exist in its current form.

The campaign focuses on the battle over public service spending but local issues which will play a part in the outcome. These include affordable housing, the eastwards extension of the A120 to the A12 at Feering, upgrading of the Braintree branch line, and the expansion of Stansted airport.

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Labour's Alan Hurst was propelled into Parliament in 1997 thanks to the last review of boundaries, which saw Tory inclined rural communities placed in neighbouring seats.

Even so, in normal circumstances, the redrawn seat should have been safe enough for the Tories and its popular MP Tony Newton. But the huge national swing to Labour didn't pass Braintree by and Mr Hurst was elected with a majority of more than a thousand.

Four years later, and most people would have bet their mortgage on Conservative Brooks Newmark being elected. They would have been made homeless because Mr Hurst scraped home, after a recount, by 358.

The two go head to head again in a prosperous seat in which the main event in the past four years has been the dualling of the A120 between Braintree and the M11 at Stansted.

Mr Hurst says schools, hospitals and roads to improve a growing area will be top of the Braintree election agenda. "We have done exceptionally well on schools – White Notley, Stisted, Finchingfield. Wethersfield, Cressing, Hatfield Peverel have schools which have been provided with either new halls or buildings, projects they had campaigned to get for 20 years and which the Labour government has delivered for them.

"Class sizes in almost every school in the Braintree division are below 30 and there are classroom assistants in addition to teachers and computers everywhere.

"Great Notley school Lyons Hall school in Braintree have been opened but thanks to the Tories at county hall we have lost a school – Chapel Hill was closed down. It has not reopened despite all sorts of promises.

"The investment at Broomfield and Colchester acute hospitals, the two which serve the constituency, has been very great. Scanners have been installed and waiting times in certain disciplines are coming down – cataracts is eight weeks whereas it was 18 months just five years ago."

Improved communications are vital as the population swells and Mr Hurst points proudly to the A120 dualling west from Braintree.

"We are now starting the process for the eastern section to the A12 at Feering, which is expected to be operational by 2013. I am looking at the line of the route before I give my backing to any of the options, but the more of it which can be put into a cutting, the less offensive it will be. The problem will be the Blackwater Valley which is scenically amazing, a real piece of old England with traditional water meadows which need protecting."

Despite being MP since 1997, Mr Hurst has not moved from his Westcliff-on-Sea home. "My wife teaches partially hearing children at Rayleigh and she is a lay reader in the Anglican Church and it is much easier for me to drive off- peak to the constituency than it is for her to struggle through the rush hour to work.

"I am highly visible in the constituency – I'm out and about in the division several times a week – I do not just pop down for the weekend."

Mr Hurst backed the Iraq war "and I have no regrets." He acknowledges voters take a strong view and some believe they were misled about the weapons of mass destruction.

"I find it odd that none have been found bearing in mind he used them against his own people, the Kurds and Iranians, but that was not the question for me – Saddam was a murdering dictator and at some stage you have to make a decision between self-determination and ensuring that certain tyrants do not go on unchecked.

"We were right to remove him and Iraq will be much better off – the Iraqi election was a great triumph."

Mr Hurst, however, clashes with his own Government's White Paper on airport provision in the south east. He opposes the expansion of Stansted – "it is not needed, it will have a disastrous effect on the environment of north-west Essex and I would be surprised if it went ahead because the case does not stack up."

Tory Brooks Newmark is concentrating on public services – health care, education and crime. "The big issue with health care is that there are more bureaucrats than beds in the NHS, which means a lot of taxpayers' money is diverted away from front line services to pencil pushers.

"Cutting out the bureaucracy means more money for doctors, nurses and beds. Cleaner hospitals is a big issue – my father-in-law earlier this year went into hospital for a hip replacement and ended up being bed ridden for six weeks with a bowl infection picked up on the ward. That is not atypical, it is a problem being seen more and more."

On education, he says: "We must eliminate the level of bureaucracy that lies behind teachers. The amount of paperwork, forms and regulations demanded by the Government is ridiculous.

"The Conservatives will focus on pupils, especially those disruptive in the classroom. We want headteachers to have more freedom and flexibility to deal with them and if necessary get them out of the system.

"But we don't want a bunch of bureaucrats telling teachers what to do – that must lie with the schools.

"On policing, there is concern at the lack of visibility, particularly in rural communities. Police tend to drive through in their cars in pairs and don't get out and talk to local communities.

"Violent crime has gone up significantly, but twinned with that is regular anti-social behaviour.

"Go into Braintree on a Friday or Saturday night and some areas are simply no-go zones because of drunks and people who are abusive."

Mr Newmark is totally opposed to the Stansted expansion. "Many Braintree voters are concerned it will mushroom in size, bringing more homes and a further destruction of the green belt and degradation of the countryside.

"Under the Government's proposals, which would see a second runway `miles away' from the first, clearly the ultimate agenda is to stick in the full three additional runways outlined in the White Paper, ending up with a second Heathrow airport in our backyard."

Of the A120 extension, Mr Newmark believes there has to be environmental sensitivity. He supports extra rail links – "historically there was a track westwards to Bishop's Stortford. Braintree is one of the fastest growing towns in Britain today and for people to have to go to Witham or Kelvedon for more frequent train services is not sensible – the town needs proper infrastructure, which means better transport links."

Mr Newmark believes Government policies on the countryside have failed to tackle rural depravation, and that will be a bigger issue among voters than hunting. "The hunting community is not going to win or lose the election for myself or my opponent.

"But there is more poverty today in the countryside than many inner city areas in the UK and Labour has not focussed on it. We want a living countryside – supporting rural post offices, transportation and police visibility. We must not focus on just Witham and Braintree but give also the villages full support and resources."

Mr Newmark says: "This constituency wants someone who lives among them – the Labour candidate lives in Southend, he has had two opportunities to move into this area but has decided he does not want to do that. Someone who is more local can be a stronger voice for local people and I live full time in the constituency."

Liberal Democrat Peter Turner would seem to have an uphill task as the Tories and Labour slug it out for supremacy. A district councillor for Black Notley since 1984, 58 year-old Mr Turner who is married with two grown-up children stood in 2001 but missed the campaign because the election was put back and it coincided with a long planned holiday.

No such problems this time, although he is facing the upheaval of moving house and having changed jobs to work as a fostering agency in East Anglia. "It's going to be a challenge for the party because we are a long way behind, but I have been surprised at the reception on the doorsteps from people saying `we'll go with you lot, because you stick by your principles.'"

He believes the main issues will be investment in public services and the looming pensions crisis. "A demographic time bomb has landed on us – on the surface this may seem an affluent area with low unemployment but I am finding a lot of urban and rural poverty with older people now quite vulnerable because their savings or stocks and shares do not have the value they expected.

"Braintree and Witham have grown in size with a lot of people moving from London but public transport in Mid Essex is a shambles. We are spending £220m on a new A120 to Marks Tey, which we need, but we can't even find £10m to improve the local railway line.

"The public transport infrastructure of the prosperous south east is a farce compared with the north and the midlands. Looking to the next 20-30 years, with housing set to expand, we need a network of effective cross-country rail links as well as improving the connection to London.

"I have strong reservations about any dramatic expansion of Stansted. I don't want to inflict more kerosene laden air on the people of mid Essex – we all like cheap flights and holidays but a second runway at Stansted is too much of a price to pay."

James Abbott, a district councillor in the Green Party's local power base at Rivenhall and Silver End, once again enters the fray. "Braintree constituency could lose large swathes of countryside under Government proposals for housing, roads and industrial development.

"Quality of life is threatened by increasing traffic and aircraft noise as well as more air pollution. There is a need for affordable housing for local people on town sites, but Government housing plans will sacrifice countryside largely to benefit developers.

"I totally oppose the £220 million proposal put forward by the Highways Agency for a new four lane highway through open countryside between Braintree and Feering, linked to a new six lane section of the A12 in the countryside. It is an immensely damaging proposal that will cut through farms and the Blackwater Valley."

Mr Abbott opposed the Iraq war – "Tony Blair and George Bush started bombing Iraq for reasons now known to be false" – and is not enamoured with Europe – "I oppose the economic centralisation of the EU and the single currency."

On Stansted, he says: "The addition of just one more runway at Stansted will create the potential for the busiest airport on the planet, here in Essex. Three runways would be an unimaginable hell for tens of thousands of people living in the area around the airport, who would suffer massive noise pollution, huge increases in road traffic and the total loss of thousands of acres of countryside under runways, more terminals, commercial developments, and new towns."

Roger Lord, who contested Essex North in 1997 and Colchester in 2001, has moved into the constituency and will be flying the anti-EU flag for the UK Independence Party. Married with two daughters, he is a company managing director and has a farming and small business background.

"I believe this country needs a radical change of direction. We have a Government that is out of control and a Conservative opposition that is useless," says Mr Lord.

"Our fundamental liberties are under attack from an arrogant and out of touch elite – we have to take a stand for freedom, be bold and not live as a nation in fear.

"At local level, increasing pressure on roads, rail and housing need some radically new thinking. Future growth of air traffic could be directed to regional airports or former military bases – where the footprint of the runway already exists – at much less cost."

Also standing as an Independent is Buster Nolan, who in 2001 contested the seat for the Legalise Cannabis Alliance.

Can Labour hold Braintree? Alan Hurst and his team are certainly not giving up without a fight – perhaps the Prime Minister will pop in to lend a helping hand.


General Election 2001

*A Hurst (Lab) 21,123; B Newmark (Con) 20,765; P Turner (LD) 5,664; J Abbott (Green) 1,241; B Nolan (Cannabis Alliance) 774; C Cole (UKIP) 748. Lab majority 358. No change. Turnout 64.21%. Electorate 78,362. Swing 0.9% Lab to Con.

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