Focus on Chelmsford West

Ted Jeory looks at the election campaign in Chelmsford WestFOUR years is a long time in the history of Chelmsford. Since Simon Burns won the Chelmsford West seat comfortably for the Conservatives in May 2001, the capital of Essex has become a town of change.

Ted Jeory looks at the election campaign in Chelmsford West

FOUR years is a long time in the history of Chelmsford. Since Simon Burns won the Chelmsford West seat comfortably for the Conservatives in May 2001, the capital of Essex has become a town of change.

Jobs have been lost, but also created, its once notorious prison has been transformed into a virtual beacon of good practice, travellers have come and gone and the seemingly inexorable metropolitan creep has continued unabated.

The largely prosperous constituency includes most of the county town of Essex, but also more sparsely populated rural areas.

The villages of Ford End, Little and Great Leighs, Little and Great Waltham, Good Easter, Roxwell, Howe Street, Margaretting, Stock, Boreham and Writtle make up large parts of the Conservative vote.

A relatively prosperous town, the self-styled "birthplace of radio" has for decades associated itself with the grand old name of Marconi. But in July 2001, disaster struck when the electronics giant became the highest profile victim of the bursting dot com bubble.

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Hundreds of jobs were axed and Chelmsford, which is also home to soft drinks company Britvic, lost some of its fizz as a manufacturing centre.

About one in 10 people in the area now work in financial services – almost three times the national average – and about 70% of the population are employed in the service industry.

However, much of this is due to the town's proximity to London and Government plans to build hundreds of thousands of new houses in the region have sparked fears the capital is consuming the district.

Mentioned in the Domesday Book of 1086, modern Chelmsford has now cemented its position as a centre for the musical youth, hosting the annual V Festival in Hylands Park. But older residents claim their town centre is being usurped by an antisocial culture of binge drinking and cheap pub promotions at the weekends, which is destroying its character.

Away from the town centre, travellers' sites have aroused deep feelings. In January last year, Little Waltham became a battle scene as hired heavies were drafted in to help police force itinerants from an illegal encampment; residents remain wary of Government policies on the issue.

And in health and education, the constituency can boast one of Britain's top school state schools in King Edward VI Grammar School and the highly rated Broomfield Hospital in Springfield – but there are also pockets of deprivation.

SIMON Burns is one of Britain's most unusual Conservative politicians: his political hero is Margaret Thatcher, yet he has been inspired throughout his political life by the assassinated American Democrats, John F Kennedy and his brother Bobby.

Educated in Africa, Lincolnshire and Oxford, the 53-year-old first entered Parliament as Chelmsford MP in 1987 and has represented his current seat, which he is defending with a 6,261 majority, since 1997.

He is a former business journalist with an eye for marketing himself and his personal website was recently rated the best in Westminster.

A junior health minister in John Major's doomed Government, Mr Burns is currently the Tories' front bench health spokesman – a portfolio he would also like in a future Howard cabinet.

He said: "My ultimate personal ambition is to continue being elected as the MP for Chelmsford West so I can continue to serve my local community and constituents.

"The cabinet position I would most like would be health because I believe passionately in a health service which is free at the point of use for all those who are eligible to use it.

"It gravely concerns me that despite the extra money made available to the health service too many problems remain due to Government-imposed targets which distort clinical decision making.

"It also concerns me that too little of the extra money given to the health service over recent years currently gets through to front line services.

"This is illustrated by the closure of the intermediate care ward at St John's Hospital and the deficits at Chelmsford Primary Care Trust and Mid Essex Hospital Trust."

On other issues, he said the "imposition" by the Government of 14,000 extra houses in the Chelmsford local authority area and the "lack of public control over the siting of telecommunications masts in residential areas" also worried him.

Asked what his greatest achievements since 2001 have been, he said: "In light of the problems with travellers at Cranham Road, Chelmsford, getting the Prime Minister at Prime Minister's Question Time to accept there is a serious problem over this issue and securing a promise from him to change the law – though ultimately his proposed changes only scratched the surface and failed to address the problem in a meaningful way."

He also claimed credit for persuading the current Tory Chelmsford Borough Council to abandon the Liberal Democrat plans to "dump" 2,500 houses on the village of Boreham.

His hobbies include tennis and reading, particularly political biographies of the Kennedy clan. He said: "My childhood hero was John F Kennedy because his presidency for 'one brief and shinning moment' inspired me with the desire to enter politics and to serve my country."

Ironically, one of the candidates trying to dethrone Mr Burns is also a Kennedy - but there is not thought to be any relation between the Labour candidate and the great American clan.

Russell Kennedy is a 37-year-old Liverpudlian who grew up in former Prime Minister Harold Wilson's Huyton constituency.

He now lives in North Springfield with his wife, Karen, and two sons, Oliver and George and works as a senior laboratory technician for Britvic.

A former trades union activist and ex-Chelmsford borough councillor, he stood for Labour in the neighbouring Conservative seat of Maldon and Chelmsford East in 2001, increasing the party's share of the vote.

He is confident of doing even better on May 5. He said: "The main issues in Chelmsford West are Labour's investment and reform versus Tory cuts and charges.

"Do people want economic stability and record employment levels under Labour or 15% interest rates and economic recession under Michael Howard's Tories?

"Local issues are the huge investment and expansion of Broomfield Hospital, with 20 year-low waiting lists, the need to provide more affordable housing.

But he also hinted he needed tactical help from the anti-Tory vote. He said: "There is an anti-Tory majority in this constituency. If they vote tactically, Labour can defeat a Tory MP who consistently fails to get 50%.

"It is time Chelmsford West had an MP who truly represents all Chelmsfordians and is awake to the improvements to our local public services because he uses them, whose children attend local schools and who sees the improvements in employees work conditions because he works in local industry.

"I have a lot to offer as an MP for Chelmsford West – hard work, dedication, the desire to represent both rich and poor and young and old. I'd be an MP who wants to make a difference, rather than simply marking time."

He said his political heroes were Nye Bevan, who founded the NHS, Harold Wilson, and, loyally, Tony Blair "who has given us a government which has provided economic strength with social justice".

As a child he was inspired by the late and legendary Liverpool manager, Bill Shankly, and also Kenny Dalglish. His hobbies include golf, collecting Beatles memorabilia, watching Marx Brother movies

He would ultimately like to be Minister for Sport, but when asked what one policy change he would like to make in Britain, Mr Kennedy – the father of a child with a learning disability – said: "To end to our seemingly endless quest for the perfect designer baby. It's a road that can only end in tears, could ultimately lead us to genetic fascism, and at the very least to the loss of our soul and sense of wonderment at the creation of every human life."

The Liberal Democrats' candidate, Stephen Robinson, is hoping to exploit anger felt towards the national Labour Government and also to Tories locally.

The 38-year-old from Writtle stood against Mr Burns in 2001, polling 11,197 votes, finishing third behind Labour some 9,300 short of victory.

But he believes his party is well placed to tap into the resentment of Tony Blair and also the Conservative-run administrations of Essex County Council and Chelmsford Borough Council.

He said both the other main parties are responsible for the potential swamp of new homes in the constituency. "The plans by the Labour government and the Conservative council to build thousands more houses are clearly a major local issue.

"Additionally, Chelmsford residents are no doubt concerned about the MRSA superbug in Broomfield hospital caused, in part, by Labour policy over-crowding wards.

"People will also be concerned about the Conservative policy to use NHS money to bribe people to go private.

"The Lib Dems believe that Whitehall targets for the NHS introduced by the Conservatives and added to by Labour should be dropped in favour of more local decision making."

He added: "Our MP voted for the unfair council tax, the illegal war in Iraq and wants to waste £3billion on collecting your personal details on a massive national database – not a very impressive record."

Mr Robinson, who is married to Angela with one son, has been an active politician since he was a teenager. He was an Essex councillor for 11 years and jointly led Epping District Council for three.

He said he has no political nor childhood heroes, but his ambition is "to serve in a government that implemented Liberal Democrat policies" and he is particularly passionate about health issues.

Mr Robinson currently works for the Royal Institute of British Architects as London region director and cites bringing up his son and making a difference as a councillor as his greatest achievements in life.

KenWedon, the UK Independence Party candidate, concedes he has no chance of winning, but wants to raise the profile of his party and is hopeful of retaining his deposit.

The 66-year-old electrical engineer left the Conservatives in the mid-90s after retiring from Chelmsford Borough Council on which he sat for 22 years, two as leader.

"I became disillusioned with the Tory party," he said. "The transfer of our national affairs to Brussels, which was begun by the Conservatives, has accelerated during the last eight years of Labour.

"It is only UKIP which offers a real choice – leaving the EU – and by doing so recovering control of our ancient democracy."

He is married to Carol and lives in Chelmsford. In 2001, he polled slightly fewer than 1,000 votes.


General Election 2001

*S Burns (Con) 20,446; A Longden (Lab) 14,185; S Robinson (LD) 11,197; E Burgess (Green) 837; K Wedon (UKIP) 785; H Philbin (Legalise Cannabis Alliance) 693. Con majority 6,261. No change. Turnout 61.66%. Electorate 78,073. Swing 0.6% from Con to Lab.

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