Focus on Suffolk South

Patrick Lowman reports on the election battle in Suffolk SouthFOR more than two decades, Tim Yeo has made Suffolk South one of the Conservatives' safest seats.

Patrick Lowman reports on the election battle in Suffolk South

FOR more than two decades, Tim Yeo has made Suffolk South one of the Conservatives' safest seats.

He is now aiming for a record breaking sixth term of office. While Mr Yeo is confident of taking his parliamentary reign into its 23nd year, he faces stiff competition from both his Labour and Liberal Democrat rivals who are determined to cause one of the General Election's biggest shocks by finally breaking the Conservative stronghold in South Suffolk.

Labour needs a 5.62% swing to oust the Tories from more than two decades of overwhelming dominance in South Suffolk.

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It is a swing, on the face of it, that is quite achievable in today's sensitive political climate – that is until you consider it's a seat held by one of the Conservatives' most high-profile MPs and former Cabinet minister Tim Yeo, and then all of a sudden the task looks almost insurmountable.

While the odds are clearly stacked against him, Labour's South Suffolk candidate Kevin Craig believes he can ensure the red flag will be flying over East Bergholt High School, when the result is declared on May 6.

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If the odds are heavily against Mr Craig, Liberal Democrat candidate Kathy Pollard needs nothing less than a minor miracle to wrestle Mr Yeo away from his seat of power.

Mrs Pollard, a Suffolk County Councillor, needs a much stronger performance than her predecessor Tessa Munt who fell 7,452 votes behind the Tories and 2,371 behind Labour in 2001.

Mrs Pollard thinks she can pull off a huge election shock and become the MP for Suffolk South in 2005.

"Despite the results of the last two elections I am confident this is a seat we can win. I have been very active within the constituency and it is clear the electorate is disillusioned with both the Conservative and Labour parties," said Mrs Pollard. "In Suffolk South we now have a total of 23 county and district councillors, while the Conservatives have 17, Labour only 8, which shows we are getting stronger all the time."

The married mother of two grown-up daughters, who lives in Capel St Mary, has served for 18 years as a councillor on either the county or district authorities and she is sure her reputation as a leading local campaigner will be a vital.

"I have been working tirelessly for local causes for nearly 20 years now, and I think people know I am a hard worker who cares about the welfare of the electorate and the area itself. I think voters will appreciate the fact I do not only come out at election time and I always fight for their needs and that gives me a huge advantage," she said.

If elected Mrs Pollard says her first priorities will be to get the long-awaited Sudbury bypass back on the political agenda and to fight for safety improvements on the A1071 Hadleigh bypass, which has became an accident blackspot. She also says it is vital to see through the plans for a new multi-million pound hospital in Sudbury.

Two other major issues Mrs Pollard will focus upon is the need to increase police presence and affordable housing within the constituency.

She said: "Increasing the police visibility has become a huge issue in Sudbury, Hadleigh, Great Cornard and all the surrounding villages. Police numbers are under threat due to a lack of Government funding and if things continue as they are there will be more cuts next year. Our party has plans to introduce 10,000 extra police officers on the beat across the country and that is particularly important in rural areas. We can achieve this by increasing police funding nationally and cutting down on administration.

"Just as important is the need to introduce more affordable homes. House prices are very high in this area, one former council house recently sold for £250,000, which is frightening. First time buyers in Suffolk South just cannot get on the ladder because the wages do not match prices, and one thing we plan to do is introduce more shared equity schemes, to allow people to remain in the area where they grew up."

Although 33-year-old Kevin Craig is new to Suffolk South he has been working hard to win friends in the constituency.

He did his popularity no harm when he recently joined campaigners in Sudbury to successfully save the town's ageing 68-bed Walnuttree Hospital from almost certain closure, when he lead the protest directly to 10 Downing Street.

The campaign is just one example of how Mr Craig has championed local issues and he is convinced his tireless work within the constituency will pay dividends come Election Day.

"I honestly think the amount of campaigning I have done can swing things my way. I have spoken directly to more than 4,000 constituents by telephone and have delivered my campaign leaflets to more than 17,000 homes.

"I have been campaigning very hard over the past year and I have found there is no longer a massive groundswell of support for Mr Yeo," he said.

Mr Craig believes the fight for Suffolk South is a two-horse race between Labour and the Conservatives and he is certain there is no clear favourite.

"I care massively about this area and I have come here to win. I think my chances are the best Labour has ever had in this area," he said. "It is of course a tough challenge because the anti-Tory vote is traditionally split, but I believe nobody really feels the Lib Dems can win here.

"It is straight choice between a Conservative or Labour MP for South Suffolk, the Lib Dem vote has fallen here since 1997 and I expect that to be the same again."

Mr Craig lives with his partner Valerie and they divide their time between homes in Sudbury and London, where he runs a public relations and marketing company.

Suffolk South has now become their spiritual home and Mr Craig says he will do everything he can to improve quality of life in the area.

He said: "I would be an MP who is prepared to get my hands dirty and I would hold surgeries twice a month so I can keep up with the concerns of people in Shotley, Sudbury, Hadleigh, Brantham, Bergholt, Great Cornard and all the other communities.

"I will keep campaigning for a western bypass in Sudbury and I will keep a close eye on the master plan at the former HMS Ganges site in Shotley to ensure it includes a significant amount of affordable housing.

"Unlike many politicians, I know what it is like to grow up in local authority housing and I know how strong people feel about the lack of affordable homes.

"One of my first priorities would be to lobby John Prescott to ensure there is a proper increase in affordable housing in Suffolk South."

Mr Craig also says Labour's record in regards to police issues, education, the health service and support for pensioners since gaining power in 1997 speaks for itself.

"It is very simple, since 1997 investments in schools and health services have increased, crime has fallen by 30% and we now have an extra 120 police officers in Suffolk.

"The Chancellor has announced plans to cut the amount pensioners pay in council tax, we have introduced pension credits for those on a low income and winter fuel allowance have gone up.

"These are all facts and our performance in all these areas will keep improving, I urge people to think about that when making their votes."

Despite the buoyancy in both the Labour and Lib Dem camps, Mr Yeo remains confident of retaining his position as the area's MP. He predicts voters' "disillusions" with the Labour Party and the "ineffectiveness" of the Lib Dems will help him gain an increased majority.

He said: "Although I take nothing for granted, I will be very surprised if I don't win again. I have been actively campaigning and the feed back I have received has lead me to believe I will get back in with an increased majority. I think the others will be fighting it out for second place."

The shadow Secretary of State for Environment and Transport, who lives in East Bergholt with his wife Diane, says the combination of his long-term relationship with his electorate and the very nature of Suffolk South people will work in his favour.

"Obviously, I know the area very well and over the years I have built up a good relationship and understanding of my constituents," he said. "Traditionally, people in this area adapt to change gradually, they prefer evolution to revolution.

"Labour has had eight years in Government, which is a good run, and a lot of promises have not been delivered. There is only one other real alternative to the Labour and that is Conservative and I think that will be reflected in the votes."

Like Mrs Pollard, the MP is concerned about the lack of police visibility in rural areas, but is equally concerned over significant council tax increases in recent years.

He said: "I think it is essential to get extra police officers on the streets, this is something I have campaigned for over several years and is something I will continue to fight for. On a national level the Conservatives' pledge is to increase police numbers and that is something we will prioritise if we win the General Election.

"The recent increases in council taxes is a major concern to the people in this area, they just do not think they are getting value for money and this is an issue I will look at immediately after the election.

"We plan to reduce the amount pensioners pay by half through rebates, which will take the burden away from them. We will also introduce tighter controls over council spending and administration to help us cut the tax rates."

On a local level Mr Yeo has vowed to continue to fight for a western bypass in Sudbury, for improved rail services on the Sudbury to Marks Tey line and connections to London, and to combat the financial crisis facing health organisations.

"Many of the local health organisations are facing mounting debts, which is very alarming. This is a situation that needs immediate attention to ensure the people get high level health services they need and deserve," he said. "I think the biggest problem is health groups are over burdened and restricted by Government targets. We plan to give those services much more freedom and let the experts make the decisions."

James Carver, who lives at Nayland, is standing for the UK Independence Party. Attempts all last week by the EADT to contact him were unsuccessful.

UKIP policies include: withdraw from the European Union and use the £30m a day paid to Brussels to increase state pensions by £25 a week; Britain to take back control of its own borders and enforce its own immigration rules.

UKIP would stop planting genetically modified crops in Britain, give matrons full authority for hospital hygiene, and let the people decide on moral issues such as capital punishment and genetics through binding referendums.


General Election 2001

*T Yeo (Con) 18,748, M Young (Lab) 13,667, T Munt (LD) 11,296, D Allen (UKIP) 1,582. Con maj 5,081. No change. Turnout 66.16%. Electorate 68,456. Swing 1.6% Lab to Con

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