Focus on Suffolk Coastal

Richard Smith looks at the Suffolk Coastal constituency, the fiefdom since 1979 of Conservative John Gummer. ON THE surface the Suffolk Coastal constituency is an idyllic place.

Richard Smith looks at the Suffolk Coastal constituency, the fiefdom since 1979 of Conservative John Gummer.

ON THE surface the Suffolk Coastal constituency is an idyllic place. Well-heeled Aldeburgh facing out to the bracing North Sea, charming and genteel Southwold, the historic market town of Woodbridge nestling on the banks of the River Deben, the seaside resort of Felixstowe dwarfed by the port, the villages on a network of beautiful country lanes and the increasing number of tourist attractions including the ever-popular National Trust visitor centre at Sutton Hoo and the possibility of having a centre dedicated at Hollesley to the Suffolk Punch horse.

But scratch deeper and you find problems that threaten the fabric of society – and threaten to spoil the identity of the Suffolk Coastal area.

Spiralling house prices mean that values have doubled in five years. Translate that into everyday life and you have a huge swathe of society that cannot afford to climb the first rung of the housing ladder. You are left with areas populated by rich elderly people, second homeowners, middle aged commuters and a few young families desperately clinging on to the place whether they were brought up. This imbalance leads to the loss of vital village facilities. Out go the shops, the post office and the pubs. Coming in very slowly are affordable houses, a concept that all political parties are attaching themselves to.

The A12 is overloaded with traffic and the prospect is bleak. Expand Felixstowe Port, create new jobs, increase the number of containers and you are left with a rise in the number of lorries that will be a huge burden on the roads. Expand Trimley St Mary and St Martin by at least 1,500 homes and gone is much of the surrounding countryside and in comes a huge concrete area generating thousands more cars and pressure on local services.

The candidates know the problems. They can not accurately forecast the solutions and it is up to the electorate to choose who they think will most represent their cause in the face of tremendous pressures on the diminishing quality of life in Suffolk Coastal.

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John Gummer comes into this election with a total of 30 years' experience as an MP. It is a job he still loves and he will stay ''as long as people want me.''

Mr Gummer said: ''It is the constituency work I love, the whole business of looking after the patch which I find so rewarding. People come to you with their problems and you can make a difference. Having been an MP I know my way round the departments and this experience is particularly useful.''

Environmental strategies are fundamental to Mr Gummer's approach. More planes are flying over Suffolk Coastal and Mr Gummer said: ''We need a much better co-ordination over the whole of Europe on air services. We have to oppose a new runway at Stansted – it has been chosen for entirely the wrong reasons – and we need to reduce short haul flights by having much better train services.''

Mr Gummer wants rail capacity to be improved to take more freight from the ever-growing Felixstowe Port and to alleviate the need for wagons to stand idle outside homes in Trimley. ''That is a dreadful embarrassment for the residents with all the smell and noise. Freight also needs to be carried more efficiently across country rather than going through London,'' said Mr Gummer.

The prospect of 1,500-plus new homes at Trimley will be ''strongly opposed'' by Mr Gummer. ''I worry about having a linear town between Ipswich and Felixstowe and the scheme will merge both Trimley villages. They are two separate communities and they want to keep separate,'' he added.

''The local issues are very important. I think people feel that the government has become increasingly centralised and taken power away and they are keen to get it back,'' said Mr Gummer.

He feels the huge council tax increase in Suffolk recently will take votes away from Labour and benefit the Conservatives. This is an issue that is worrying people on the doorstep – and they want a cap on immigration, more affordable houses and cleaner hospitals.

''They are very concerned about the hospitals and the NHS. I am very concerned about the question of cleanliness and I think we should bring back matron and her values. We have special plans to make it easier to build houses for local people in villages, by making changes to the planning system. We want affordable housing to be built outside the village envelope and to give preference to local people,'' he said.

Mr Gummer takes an all-embracing approach to the constituency and local, national and global problems. His election literature highlights the repositioning of a bus stop, making a street light work, installing a post box and relocating a telegraph pole to an unobtrusive site. On the next scale he has been campaigning for safety at Stratford St Andrew and Farnham, fighting for a one-stop health centre for Saxmundham and obtaining better coastal protection for east Suffolk.

On the bigger issues he spoke against war in Iraq, he tried to stop the execution of Felixstowe-born Jackie Elliot on Death Row and he sought ways of improving the position of poor people worldwide.

David Rowe lives in a terraced house in Walton. He was brought up in the twin villages of Trimley and it is this sense of belonging to his patch that he hopes will give him a head start. He is also a county councillor, the deputy leader of the county council and the very public figure that many people will blame for the huge increase in the council tax.

That 18.5% rise two years ago is a bitter pill that many still can not swallow.

But Mr Rowe, portfolio holder for financial and strategic planning, believes he can face up to his critics – and he says there are not many on the doorstep at the moment – and tell them they pay less council tax compared with Norfolk and Essex.

''Very few people have raised the issue. Nobody liked the increase but I had to pay it as well. I said at the time it would improve social services. They made two stars and the county council was declared an 'excellent' authority,'' said Mr Rowe.

He believes that his passion and honesty will win him votes and he claims that the Liberal Democrats are not in the race to topple Mr Gummer. ''This seat used to be a three horse race in the early 90's. But the Lib Dems are not the challengers now in this area and if people realise that and they do not want John Gummer, they have to vote for me.

''What an awful lot of people are saying in this seat is that they want an MP who they can trust, who is local, works hard, answers their letters and phone calls, and it is their views on local issues that are important to them. That is what I pledge to do and I have more control over that than I do the big issues nationally. I will hold local surgeries in each of the major towns and make sure that they are accessible for people,'' said Mr Rowe.

He served on the district council for four years, had a two-year break and has been on the county council since 2001. Now he is championing the cause of keeping open two hospitals in Felixstowe, protecting the post offices in the area and ensuring that more freight generated by Felixstowe Port is put onto the railway.

The huge development planned for Trimley is a subject close to his heart and Mr Rowe said: ''I am against it simply because it is overkill and overdevelopment. It is just too much and that is a great problem. They want to make Trimley enormous but Trimley does not have the facilities to cope with that.''

On affordable housing he wants 30% of a development to include homes cheap enough for the average person to buy and Mr Rowe is keen for local authorities to consider different ways of helping the public to buy a property to avoid crippling mortgages. ''And where we have big developments we have to make sure that there are facilities with them. You have to build a community with shops and a post office,'' he said.

David Young lives outside the constituency in Lowestoft. That, he tells the electorate, is nothing to worry about. He is leader of the Liberal Democrats on Waveney District Council which takes in part of the Suffolk Coastal seat, he has served on the Suffolk Police Authority and, says Mr Young, he has made himself a name up north for his tireless campaigning against the closure of local shops and post offices.

The former Royal Marine Commando Officer is fighting a positive campaign and does not want to be dragged down into dirty tactics. He is highlighting the successes the Lib Dems have chalked up in Suffolk Coastal District Council by elections and he is determined to keep intact the identity of rural villages. ''We do not want them to be a folksy area, and we want them to be a place where you can live and work. We want rural life to be sustainable and get young people here.

''The lack of affordable housing causes several problems. When young people get married they find it virtually impossible now to get on the housing ladder and this has a great detrimental effect on the stability of communities, especially rural communities, and there is a lack of balance in the population. If there is a lack of children, then the school with falling rolls is under threat, and the shops, pub and post office have not got enough custom to support them.

''I am putting out a challenge to Suffolk Coastal District Council. I want them to create a register of the number of derelict or empty properties so we can see how many there are, and then see if a housing association or charity can buy them, do them up and sell them at an affordable price that is then protected,'' said Mr Young.

His leaflet highlights 10 national issues but Mr Young is talking on the doorstep to householders about the local issues that matter to them. The Iraq war, pensions, police on the streets, tuition fees and the environment are mentioned, but time and again it is issues associated with Suffolk Coastal that are to the fore. ''I will put constituents first, listen to what they have to say and make sure the message is passed out at Westminster on their behalf. For the last eight years I have been face to face with constituents and I am very approachable and aware of their concerns and where I can I will put their concerns right,'' said Mr Young.

He says the Trimley expansion is too great, that more containers from Felixstowe port should go by rail and there should be more police officers on the street. ''A police presence is always a deterrent and instead of spending billions of pounds on identity cards we should be putting the money into frontline policing,'' said Mr Young.

Richard Curtis is representing UKIP and he said: ''The people of the UK, of England, of Suffolk Coastal, may be overwhelmed by the tidal wave of new European directives and regulations that threaten to plunder our hard won British traditions and achievements. How confusing and worrying it is for everyone to see that all three major parties are hell bent on presenting our lovely country to Europe, when poll after poll indicates that a very high proportion of the UK public are set against the idea.''

Paul Whitlow, the Green party candidate, said: ''The introduction of tougher measures such as encouraging renewable energy sources, the reduction in the use of energy consumption and the introduction of an escalating carbon tax to reduce the speed of climate change is an issue I am strongly supporting.''


General Election 2001

*Rt Hon J S Gummer (Con) 21,847, N Gardner (Lab) 17,521, T Schur (LD) 9,192, M Burn (UKIP) 1,847. Con maj 4,326. No change. Turnout 66.36%. Electorate 75,963. Swing 1.6% Lab to Con

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