Focus on Suffolk Central & Ipswich North

EADT Political Editor Graham Dines looks at the election campaign in the sprawling acres of Suffolk Central and Ipswich NorthTAKE a quarter of the borough of Ipswich, add the new housing estates at Kesgrave, the market towns of Eye, Stradbroke, Debenham, Framlingham and Wickham Market, and villages such as Hoxne, Pettaugh, Stonham Aspal, Rushmere St Andrew, Bramford and Otley, and you have a slice of Suffolk which is as diverse as any in England.

EADT Political Editor Graham Dines looks at the election campaign in the sprawling acres of Suffolk Central and Ipswich North

TAKE a quarter of the borough of Ipswich, add the new housing estates at Kesgrave, the market towns of Eye, Stradbroke, Debenham, Framlingham and Wickham Market, and villages such as Hoxne, Pettaugh, Stonham Aspal, Rushmere St Andrew, Bramford and Otley, and you have a slice of Suffolk which is as diverse as any in England.

From Christchurch Park in the centre of Ipswich to the Norfolk border, the gangling constituency of Suffolk Central and Ipswich North lies roughly between the A140 and A12 routes north and runs alongside part of the A14.

Between 1983 and 1997, Sir Michael Lord was firmly entrenched in its predecessor constituency Suffolk Central which included Stowmarket and Needham Market but was without the Suffolk Coastal districts.

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But when the current boundaries were introduced in 1997, coupled with the collapse in Tory support, his majority plunged from 16,031 and only slightly recovered last time.

In 1997, Sir Michael was elevated to the role of third Deputy Speaker of the House of Commons, which bars him from entering the party political fray. He was knighted for services to Parliament but his age – he's 66 – coupled with no signs that the much younger Speaker Michael Martin is ready to call it a day, probably means he is not destined to become Mr Speaker Lord.

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To Sir Michael, this election is all about trust in the Prime Minister and in the Government. "To my mind, that's all gone, and that colours the whole campaign.

"We've had broken manifesto promises and the was dishonesty in way the build up to the war in Iraq was conducted," says Sir Michael, who from his prominent role in Parliament is well placed to see the contempt Labour, with its massive majority, has for the House of Commons.

"My advice surgeries are full of people deeply concerned over hospital waiting lists and the MRSA super bug. It was in 1988 that I waged a campaign to bring back matrons with full powers and if that had been successful, I think the cleanliness of our hospitals would not be in the state they are today."

Sir Michael finds that immigration and asylum are placing a huge burden on towns like Ipswich, and that there is deep anger at how the Government has manipulated council tax and with the way schools are hamstrung in trying to deal with disruptive pupils.

In the 1990s, Sir Michael found himself at odds with the Tory leadership over the Maastrict Treaty but is content now with the party line – "no to the euro, no to the EU constitution, no to European bureaucracy, and yes to bringing more decision making back to Britain."

There are a number of constituency issues dominating the election. He is fighting hard to save Broomhill Pool in Ipswich from closure, because it fulfils all sorts of social needs from health and exercise to keeping youngsters occupied on long summer evenings. "If our forebears could provide it, it would be a poor show if we were to let it close."

He judges the SnOasis project at Great Blakenham "exciting" but believes it is right that the Government should make the final decision on whether it should go ahead. "It is too big an issue for the resources of the planning department of Mid Suffolk Council. SnOasis is bound to have a major impact on the road network and the environment of the area and there are doubts if the proposed railway station will be agreed."

He is totally opposed to the proposed wind farm at Parham airfield. "We need alternative forms of energy but on shore turbines have run their course – they are noisy and intrusive."

His Labour challenger is Neil MacDonald, an Ipswich borough councillor. Aged 38, he is unmarried, lives in North East Ipswich, and works as an IT designer at BT Laboratories

"The rural economy is changing, with fewer people being employed in agriculture. We must create new skills such as IT, creative and media, and tourism. There is a severe shortage of affordable rural housing," says Mr MacDonald.

"One of the challenges facing the constituency is how we are able to provide good quality services to enable viable and sustainable communities to thrive. The heart of our villages and market towns has been ripped out by the closure of shops, post offices and pubs."

Mr MacDonald realises that a divided opposition has allowed the Tories to hang on in the constituency in the past two elections. "We have to stop the Liberal Democrat tactic of trying to squeeze the Labour vote. They are attempting to fight on our ground, but Tony Blair has delivered record investment in schools and hospitals to the enormous benefit of Suffolk Central and Ipswich North.

"Ipswich Hospital has been under pressure, but thanks to Labour, it is delivering a tremendous level of service. It may be struggling with capacity, but only until the Garrett Anderson annexe is opened in 2007, which will provide an extra 100 beds and four additional operating theatres.

"When Labour won in 1997, £36bn was being spent on schools. Today it is £63bn. I support the campaign to establish a University of Suffolk in Ipswich, but this will be threatened should the Conservatives win. At the moment, 45% of over 18s go to higher education and Labour has pledge to increase this to 50% – Michael Howard's Tories want to cut the fugue to 35% which would mean they would abandon project to give Suffolk a university.

"At the same time, we should increase vocational training. There is nothing wrong with being a tradesperson and we should provide the latest facilities to enable those who wish to pursue courses such as plastering and bricklaying. We need a state of the art college of further education and a major spin-off of the university project will be the relocation of Suffolk College.

"I am keen to see the concept of community policing expanded to north Ipswich. It has been launched successfully in the south east of the borough where it has been a great success. There is a fear of crime and visible policing helps to address that.

"Rural areas need to have increased policing – of course you cannot have a policeman in every village on duty for 24 hours but we must strive to achieve better response times to incidents.

"Anti social behaviour blights urban areas, market towns, and the countryside and the Government's recognition of the problem with the in introduction of anti social behaviour orders for offenders has been one of the success stories of Labour's second term.

"We need renewable energy sources which is why I support the provision of wind turbines at Parham – it is a hideous, rundown airfield and a windfarm is one of the least inoffensive uses to which it could be put."

Liberal Democrat Andrew Houseley is 42, unmarried, and lives at Parham in the constituency. Born in Felixstowe, his father was a renowned Liberal county councillor.

Mr Houseley says: "A quarter of the electors live in Ipswich but the urban Tory vote and urban Labour vote is volatile and we are a natural home for them.

"Being in third place is hard, but Labour's vote is there to be squeezed and I believe we have a good chance of pulling off a major shock, especially when you factor in the support for UKIP which will be drained from the Tories.

"I shall be fighting this election on local issues. The Lib Dems have made significant advances over the years at local government level – we have county councillors in Debenham, Framlingham, Gipping Valley and Kesgrave, Mid Suffolk district councillors in Barking & Somersham and Stonham, Ipswich borough councillor in Whitehouse, and Suffolk Coastal district councillors in Wickham Market and Kesgrave West.

"The proposed windfarm for Parham, where I live, would have an enormous impact and tower over the landscape. We have to have electricity pylons but there are other places for windfarms such as offshore. Renewable energy generation by windfarm is a romantic notion, but the sensibilities of people who live nearby the sites must be taken into account."

On council tax, he backs his party's plans to replace it with a local income tax – "it is wealth redistribution and socially responsible. It has broad appeal and shows the party is innovative with modernising ideas."

Of Iraq, Mr Houseley says: "Those who are appalled at the way the decision was made to go to war are waiting to register their protest. They won't support the Tories, because they backed the war.

"I am against ID cards, not on cost grounds but civil liberties. As long as we have an unwritten constitution, we should have nothing to do with anything which could infringe our rights."

Mr Houseley adds: "If the SnOasis development is to go ahead, it is essential that the surrounding communities are consulted on all aspects of the development, especially those living in Great Blakenham as the character of this village will change forever.

"They must have full access to the facilities and have much improved amenities of their own. Above all, the predicted visitors must be able to get to the site quickly without causing congestion or being tempted into taking short cuts through our local villages.

"This is not only in the interests of residents but surely in the commercial interests of the developer, who needs to rethink the proposed traffic management arrangements and come up with more money."

Battling it out for fourth place will be the Greens and UKIP. The Greens best hope is to be seen by anti Iraq war Labour voters as a safe repository of their protests, which may give Professor Martin Wolfe of Fressingfield the edge over UKIP's John West of Wickham Market.

In 2001, UKIP polled 1,132 votes, 2.4% of the total, but Mr West – a journalist and former radio presenter – believes he'll do far better than just saving his deposit. In particular, he says he's found fertile ground in Kesgrave.

"People are fed up with the other parties – they don't trust Tony Blair because of Iraq, immigration and the NHS, the Lib Dems love of Europe is a turn off, and they never see or hear of their Tory MP.

"`Europe' is an issue on the doorstep. We pay Brussels £30million a day for the `privilege' of being a member of the EU – it's a disgrace that the three main parties are prepared to do this while our hospitals, schools, police, roads and railways are crying out for funds."

Professor Wolfe favours the Parham wind farm in principle, but would prefer one or two community owned turbines at various locations throughout the constituency.

Of SnOasis, he says: "We need attractive local holiday and leisure facilities to help offset the increasing trend to the use of artificially cheap air travel to distant sites.

"Because of the huge projected numbers of visitors, access to SnOasis will have to be by rail directly into the site itself. Major access by road is simply not feasible – it would be environmentally disastrous.

"If the application does progress, there will need to be a comprehensive assessment of biodiversity and other environmental impacts in the area related to all aspects of the scheme including the leisure centre itself and the rail link."


2001 General Election

*M Lord (Con) 20,924; C Jones (Lab) 17,455; A Elvin (LD) 7,593; J Wright (UKIP) 1,132. Con maj 3,469. No change. Turnout 63.48%. Electorate 74,200. Swing 0.3% Lab to Con

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