Focus on Bury St Edmunds

SITUATED amid miles of rolling countryside in the heart of rural Suffolk, the Bury St Edmunds constituency should be a True Blue Conservative safe seat.

SITUATED amid miles of rolling countryside in the heart of rural Suffolk, the Bury St Edmunds constituency should be a True Blue Conservative safe seat.

The reds and yellows of Labour and the Liberal Democrats have traditionally failed to loosen the Conservative stranglehold – despite coming tantalisingly close in 1997 when just 368 votes separated the two main parties and the seat became the most marginal in East Anglia.

However, that result was a far cry from the highly comfortable majority enjoyed by the Tories at the height of their grip.

For mid-way through his reign, which stretched for nearly three decades and began following a by-election in 1964, Sir Eldon Griffiths polled 21,458 votes more than his nearest contender – and returned once more to the Commons victorious.

Whether current MP David Ruffley, who has represented the constituency since 1997, will ever benefit similarly has yet to be revealed.

Like in many other areas around the country, policing and the health service – and in particular the finances of PCTs and hospital trusts – promise to dominate the fight for votes on a local level, as well as on the national stage.

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And those battling it out on May 5 to represent the constituency's 80,000 population include Mr Ruffley, Labour hopeful Dave Monaghan, Liberal Democrat David Chappell, UKIP's John Howlett and Graham Manning of the Green Party.

All are keen to grab a large slice of the electoral pie, and will be appealing to voters in Stowmarket, Needham Market, Rickinghall, Haughley, Elmswell and Woolpit – as well as those in Bury – as part of their efforts.

But whether the winner's majority will sit closer to the nailbiting 368 in 1997 or the massive 21,458 ten years earlier remains to be seen.

Mr Ruffley, 43, is certainly hoping for a third term representing Bury in the Commons. The former solicitor, who lives at Great Saxham and is the Conservative's Treasury whip, said the key issues at the ballot box this year would be health, law and order and council tax.

And his campaign is being fought on a local level, leaving areas such as asylum, immigration and Europe to the national stage.

"What the constituents want to hear from me is not only what I will do if re-elected, but what I have been doing for the last eight years for this part of Suffolk," said Mr Ruffley.

"My number one priority is the health service, which is in crisis in Suffolk. I do not believe St Nicholas' Hospice, for example, gets its fair share of the national cake in terms of cancer plan money.

"I will also be campaigning on NHS dentists, which are a rare breed in Suffolk, and the great bed blocking crisis.

"Over the past four years, we have had one of the worst records in the whole country and I am determined to end the scandal of bed blocking and keep up pressure over something which has blighted Suffolk and caused untold misery for older people, their carers and families."

And Mr Ruffley pledged an extra 370 policemen and women would be provided for Suffolk under a Tory Government, paid for by money freed up from reforming the asylum and immigration systems. "No ifs, no buts – this is a full-on promise from me as MP," he said.

He added: "Law and order is my second priority. You do not have to be a brain surgeon to understand that if you put more bobbies on the frontline, you are going to deter criminals and also catch more of them.

"We have seen violent crime increase in Suffolk in the last seven years and detection rates are not as high as they should be.

"Under plans announced by the shadow Chancellor earlier this year, we can save enough money by reforming asylum and immigration systems to put into colossal increases in the size of the police force."

Mr Ruffley said he was also keen to see "red tape" in the constabulary cut, adding that officers spend half their shifts filling in forms rather than patrolling the streets.

"And my third priority is council tax," he said. "Rises are now slowing down, but pensioners and those on fixed incomes have been hammered over the last seven years.

"We have a national policy that will have particular resonance in the Bury constituency - we have pledged to halve bills for over 65-year-olds.

"This is not an aspiration but a promise. We are over-taxed locally and are not getting value for money. We must cut the bills and get better value for money from local services."

And he also pledged to help improve the infrastructure of Bury, by campaigning for a southern relief road to help ease congestion once the Cattle Market development is complete.

Labour candidate Mr Monaghan has promised to be a "roll-up-your sleeves" community MP if elected. He says: "I want to help local people with good ideas to make things happen."

The 36-year-old trade union organiser, who works in Newmarket and lives in Stevenage, has promised to earn the trust of the electorate and ensure their views are heard "at the heart of Government."

"I want people to feel able to come to me with their issues and to know I will help them in the best way I can," said Mr Monaghan, who is married to Helen and has no children.

"I understand that too many people are put off politics because of the way it is conducted. I am involved out of a genuine sense of wanting to support a set of principles that I hold very dear.

"Therefore I know I have to overcome the distrust many people have in politicians. My aim, if elected, is not merely to ask for (the electorate's) trust but to earn it. By the time of the following election, I want my reputation to speak for itself."

Mr Monaghan said he had identified issues key to the constituency while working in the area during the past 12 months.

"Some are priorities specific to the area and others matter to everyone," he said. "Getting the buses working well in the rural areas of the constituency is a good example - I will use my links with government to put pressure on the privatised companies to improve their service and I have already met Alastair Darling about this."

Mr Monaghan applauded the levels of funding put into health, education, the police and business support services by his Labour colleagues in the Commons, and promised to meet with those at the "sharp end" of delivery locally.

"I can then help with promoting good news, communicating problems back to central Government and do a good job representing the constituency," he said.

"In west Suffolk, there are more medical staff and 10,000 more consultations and operations take place. But more needs to be done to increase visiting nurse numbers and sort out PCT finances.

"There are more police which is why crime in Suffolk is down. But there are problems with anti-social behaviour and better use of new legislation is necessary.

"There are more teachers in Suffolk and the results are improving. But still more needs to be done to bring standards up across the age range.

"More money is going to pensioners thanks to initiatives such as the Pension Credit, Winter Fuel Allowance, free TV licenses and help with Council Tax. But still too many pensioners are struggling and more help is needed," he added.

Mr Monaghan said he has already met with key figures, such as West Suffolk Hospital cleaners, education bosses, Suffolk's chief constable and business leaders - and pledged to continue that work if elected.

"I wish to use my influence to ensure local views are heard right at the heart of government and I know how to achieve this," he added.

But Mr Chappell, of the Liberal Democrats, says his party provides the only "real alternative" to the Conservatives in Bury – adding this is the first election where the Tories have been "seriously challenged" in this constituency by their opponents in yellow.

"They (the Conservatives) have no answer to the sensible, practical ideas the Liberal Democrats are putting forward which address the concerns and aspirations of people in Suffolk," said the quantity surveyor, 51, who has one son and lives in Fornham All Saints.

"We want a good reliable health service. We hear of the closure of wards in West Suffolk Hospital due to the winter vomiting virus, and remember who contracted out the cleaners – the Tories. Our health service needs well-trained staff."

Mr Chappell said less emphasis should be placed on taking doctors and nurses from third-world countries, while more should be put into training staff at home and paying them better wages.

He vowed a Liberal Democrat government would scrap NHS targets, which he says detract from patient care, slash bureaucracy and "put caring for people first." And his party, he added, wanted free care for the elderly, as in Scotland.

Mr Chappell also placed importance on reforming the prison service, and criticised Michael Howard's plans to put thousands more in jail while reducing spending by 30%.

"All prisoners should receive training to prepare them for life back in their communities," he said. "If they walk from jail to job, the likelihood of re-offending is proven to be low."

More emphasis should also be placed on bringing new businesses to the constituency to address below-average wages, added Mr Chappell. And the Liberal Democrats, he said, would help bridge the gap between low pay and high house prices by building trust homes on council-owned land, allowing percentage ownership and using each rental payment as a contribution to greater ownership.

Mr Chappell also says: "Council Tax has to change. Revaluation is a waste of your money. We prefer a fair system based on the ability to pay.

"How would the Liberal Democrat's local income tax work? Take your income, deduct your allowance of £4,745, or £6,950 for pensioners, apply 3.75p in the pound.

"Is it less than you pay at the moment? Will it be less after revaluation? A pensioner couple with an income of £14,600 will pay £26.25 a year."

Mr Manning, 57, who lives in Barrow with his partner Kate and has five children, says the Green Party he represents offers a range of policies covering Iraq, the economy and Europe.

Local health and education provision, said the education officer, were also key, alongside ensuring the vitality of Suffolk's villages.

Mr Howlett, 57, who lives in Isleham and is married with four children, said that leaving the EU would enable his party UKIP to reduce taxes, keep the retirement age down and increase pensions.

The structural engineer added: "UKIP offers independence, and freedom from oppressive bureaucracy."


General Election 2001

*D Ruffley (Con) 21,850; M Ereira (Lab) 19,347; R Williams (LD) 6,998; J Howlett (UKIP) 831; M Brundle (Ind) 651; M Benwell (Socialist Labour) 580. Con maj 2,503. No change. Turnout 66%. Electorate 76,146. Swing 2.2% Lab to Con.

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