Spring’s legacy will mean new MP must be a localist
FOLLOWING in Richard Spring’s footsteps in West Suffolk is going to be a very hard act for whoever is elected on May 6. Mr Spring, who is not seeking re-election, became Conservative MP for the new seat in 1997, having previously represented Bury St Edmunds for five years. But the first time the seat was contested, Mr Spring was returned with a majority of less than 2,000. It was a wake up call to the Tories not to take rural Suffolk for granted.
Mr Spring famously announced that he intended “to out-pavement the Liberal Democrats” – in other words, no matter how tiny the issue, he would take up the cudgels on behalf of his constituents.
West Suffolk covers the whole of Forest Heath district and parts of St Edmundsbury borough. It arches over the top of Bury St Edmunds from Euston Hall in the east to Haverhill and Newmarket in the west.
Mr Spring was been a fearless supporter of dualling the A11 through West Suffolk and has been a champion of the rural way of life and its traditions. He has also campaigned to improve facilities in Haverhill, one of the fastest-growing towns in England and was rewarded by seeing his majority rise at the next two elections and in 2005 was returned by a margin of 8,909.
The Tories have chosen live-wire Matt Hancock as his successor. Shadow Chancellor George Osborne’s chief of staff, 31-year-old Mr Hancock has been at the heart of Tory economic policy for five years. He is seen as a Cabinet minister of the future.
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Married with two young children, he is renting a property in Thurlow while looking around for a permanent residence.
“Everyone I speak to wants to see the back of Gordon Brown. We must mobilise a get the vote out campaign to ensure there is a change of government,” says Mr Hancock.
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“It is obvious that Labour is not taking this seat seriously because its candidate has not been seen very often. Labour polled 12,000 last time and I am determined to persuade those voters to back the Conservatives.
“In Haverhill, which used to be a Labour town, there is big support for the way the Conservative council has invested in its facilities. Haverhill is going places, it is a town on the rise, and I am delighted to back all the hard work my predecessor has done. And I would like to see Newmarket make more of its history as an international centre for horse racing.”
Mr Hancock opposes the controversial Hatchfield Farm housing development plans, has launched a save the village pub campaign, wants more high-value jobs created in the constituency, and has pledged “to fight all the way” for the A11 dualling. With a nod to his boss at Westminster, he says: “The A11 must become the number one regional road improvement but I fully realise that money is tight.”
For Labour’s Ohid Ahmed, the West Suffolk contest is one of two he is fighting on the same day. He is also trying to ensure that he is re-elected in the London borough of Tower Hamlets, where he lives.
One of only two Bangladeshi candidates standing for Labour, he says: “There are a number of local issues over which people think they have been let down at the Tory county council,” says Mr Ahmed. “One is the proposed closure of Brandon middle school. I want to see it kept open because we want more education opportunities for all pupils, not just the rich, and many face being bused to new schools rather than being taught locally.
“Obviously demand is growing for housing and this will put pressure on the infrastructure unless proper planning procedures are carried out. If Hatchfield Farm is developed, it must be a mixed development for rich and poor, for people who can afford to buy and those who do not have the money.
“There must also be proper community facilities such as schools, shops and health centre. If we are careful with the planning process, the development need not be controversial.
“I have not found hostility towards the Government. Indeed many that I have met, including Tories, give credit to Gordon Brown for the strong response to the global financial crisis.”
He added: “I am confident we will have a good result in West Suffolk and that Labour will increase its vote in the constituency.”
The Liberal Democrats have selected Cambridgeshire county councillor Dr Bel Brooks-Gordon, a well-known figure nationally who campaigns on women’s rights.
“I love campaigning and this is a great time to be in politics. The sands are shifting and the voters are beginning to realise that the Lib Dems offer the only sensible way out of the morass. This is the first time in my memory that the Lib Dems have the most competent and best-respected economics spokesman of the three main parties – Vince Cable,” says Dr Brooks-Gordon, who was only selected as the candidate a few weeks before nominations closed.
“Labour’s vote has collapsed in this constituency and I am finding that people I’ve spoken to are more interested in local issues than national politics.
“Matt Hancock cannot take this seat for granted. This election is between him and me. In areas which have always been regarded as default Tory, we are finding their vote is very soft, especially on the new estates.
“Transport in the constituency is absurd – too little and not operating at times which people want to use buses. I would like to see the reopening of the Haverhill to Cambridge railway line.
“Completion of the A11 is not coming up on the doorstep and I recognise that its construction will depend on the economic situation.
Ian Smith is once again the choice of the UK Independence Party, and he just fell a few votes short of saving his deposit in the 2005 election. Born in Brentwood, Essex, in 1966, he moved to Norfolk in 1984 and has lived in Lakenheath with his family since 1990. He is a classically trained musician and has worked as a self-employed organist, pianist and private music tutor for the past 15 years.
He has served as a UKIP Parish Councillor since his election in 2008 and has previously stood for election at district, county and in two General Elections.
“There are many Tory voters who will never forgive Cameron for breaking his ‘cast iron guarantee’ of a referendum on Europe,” says Mr Smith, who wants Britain to quit the EU and spend the money saved on improving public services, increased defence spending, and reducing taxation.
“Immigration is an issue,” says Mr Smith. “This is an agricultural constituency and people in the area who are in tied accommodation have to go on the bottom of the housing list when they leave their jobs and it makes them angry when they see migrants going to the top of the queue.”
Former Liberal Democrat Andrew Appleby is standing as an independent. The Forest Heath councillor says that quick fixes and kick starts are dubious options for the British economy. “Steady, perhaps painful, progress is, possibly, better.
“Of particular interest to many currently is the house building requirements of the Spatial Strategy. Forest Heath DC is required to build 6,400 homes. St Edmundsbury is required to build 10,000, of which some 4,000 are scheduled for Haverhill.
“Presumably some experts have calculated that these homes are necessary. Probably some other experts would produce different figures.
“Some residents might be pinning their hopes that a Tory Government will blow these plans away and that local governments will decide their own housing strategies. Such would not necessarily solve problems of homelessness and lack of affordable housing. Vested and personal interests could lead to inequalities of opportunity here. Some Government direction must be appropriate.”
Ramon Johns is standing for the British National Party: “I have been a cab driver for over 50 years and in that time have seen many changes in what was once a clean and orderly country. Street doors were left open, with the occasional ‘bobby’ about his business.
“There’s now a general air of seediness about our society with much in need of repair or renovation. As you go about your daily life you do not need reminding of the condition of the roads and public transport.
“Yet we pay over one billion pounds a week into the EU and throw more money into the wars in the middle east, all without an end in sight, and for what? Isn’t it time for a government for our people that will not prance about the world and/or line their own pockets?
“Let us go forward together and start to clean-up the tawdry mess that our country has become. Together we can and must, bring great changes to our land. That we can pass on to those who will inherit this country a clean, industrious society.”
Despite the full-blooded campaign being mounted by Dr Brooks-Gordon, the squeeze of the Labour vote, and the general surge in support for the Liberal Democrats, her arrival on the Suffolk West scene was probably too late to damage the well-oiled Conservative machine.
A look at the electoral history of this corner of Britain shows just how high the barrier is for non-Conservative candidates. Since 1918, large chunks of the constituency have never had a non-Tory MP and it would be a major shock if the result this time was anything other than a victory for Matt Hancock.