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Brexit, the housing ladder, NHS and roads – inside our South Ribble MP hustings

Posted on - 1st July, 2024 - 1:30pm | Author - | Posted in - Bamber Bridge, Leyland, Longton & New Longton, Lostock Hall, Penwortham, Politics, South Ribble News, Walton-le-Dale
The audience at the South Ribble hustings
The audience at the South Ribble hustings

More than a hundred people turned out to quiz the politicians wanting to be South Ribble’s next MP at a packed hustings event in the constituency – exactly a week before polling day.

Four out of the five candidates vying for the seat at next week’s general election were put through their paces in a two-hour debate, which ran the gamut of issues that the public said mattered most to them.

The hustings – organised by the Local Democracy Reporting Service, Lancashire Post, Lancashire Lead and Blog Preston – was staged at Penwortham Golf Club and saw local democracy reporter Paul Faulkner tee up a range of questions submitted in advance by audience members.

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The prospective parliamentarians were put under the microscope on subjects as diverse as the widening of one of the borough’s busiest roads, providing affordable homes for young people, the effects of Brexit and guaranteeing single-sex spaces.

Those in attendance at Thursday evening’s gathering also got the chance to probe the would-be MPs directly when on-the-spot questions were invited from the floor.

Here’s a synopsis of topics discussed and debated.

Brexit

The candidates were asked – in a question submitted by a member of the public – specifically about whether any of their parties would seek pre-Brexit levels of access to the EU’s single market.

Mr. Hunter accused both the Conservative Party and the civil service of “betraying the country” over Brexit, which took place in January 2020 after almost four years of political wrangling since the referendum on the subject. He also said that if a future Labour government sought closer ties with Europe, it would be in for “a nasty little shock” – because countries like Italy, France and Germany had “gone in exactly the opposite direction that Sir Keir Starmer was hoping for”.

Pressed by hustings host – local democracy reporter Paul Faulkner – as to how his vision of Brexit differed to the one that had been delivered, the Reform candidate pointed to the election after next:  “Maybe in five years’ time, we’ll be able to [show]…the trade opportunities that have been missed, the free ports that could have been managed quite readily

“There are some projects that are beyond political timeframes and we need a method…to be able to get cross-party agreements on how things move forward in the future,” Mr. Hunter said.

Labour candidate Paul Foster told the assembled audience that he wanted to be “absolutely categorically clear”  that membership of the single market and EU customs union were “not up for renegotiation with the Labour Party”.  He said it was now a matter of making the best of Brexit.

“Brexit is done. It’s caused huge amounts of damage to UK trade – and what we have to do now is go and get the 2019 ‘oven ready deal’ [promised before the last election by Boris Johnson]…out of the oven and try and get it to work and work properly.

“The first thing we need to do is improve our relationships with our European partners, but there’s no renegotiation. The deal’s done – we’re out of Europe,” Mr. Foster said.

However, Conservative candidate Katherine Fletcher characterised her Labour challenger’s position as one of becoming “rule takers” from the EU “without having a seat around the table to actually influence any of those rules”.

She also claimed Brexit had brought benefits to the UK economy.

“We have grown more than all of the rest of the European economies since 2010. We are now the second in the world for greenfield foreign direct investment…just overtaking China. That means people coming from other countries to invest money, to build factories, etc..

“What we’ve chosen to do post-Brexit is we have made deals with the parts of the world that are growing like topsy.

“I was the trade envoy selling the UK out in Mozambique and Africa.  They’re desperate to do business with us [and] they’re all growing,” said Ms. Fletcher, who added that she did not see Brexit as a “rejection” of her European identity.

Mixed wards

A South Ribble nurse said treating trans women on the same hospital wards as biologically female patients puts women’s rights “under serious threat”.

The nurse – who said she had worked in the health service for 30 years – asked: “Do you think it’s right for a biological male to be on the same ward [and] in the same bay as a woman?”

In a later contribution when she pressed the would-be MPs over their “ideological” position on the matter, the nurse added that she did not believe such a situation was “correct”.

Liberal Democrat candidate Ange Turner responded: “No, I don’t think it’s right. We have to look at the cause – and it’s probably the…underfunding of the NHS, because you can also have women and men in the corridor.

“Our NHS will always deal with the issues that people come in with, but our hospitals don’t have the capacity – or are not modern enough after they’ve been crumbling – to properly accommodate proper areas for women and for men,” Ms. Turner explained.

Andy Hunter, standing for Reform UK, said: “I don’t think you should have them [mixed wards] either.”

For the Conservatives, Katherine Fletcher, who is fighting to retain the seat she has represented since 2019, added:  “The problem is you’ve got to change the law to allow for that…protection to be put in place.” She accused the Labour Party of being “all over the place on this one”.

In response, Labour candidate Paul Foster said:  “I don’t believe in mixed wards.”

NHS staff morale

The Liberal Democrat representative for the seat said the key was to relieve the pressure currently felt by NHS workers, while Reform UK proposed offering staff a major tax break.

Paul Foster told the audience that the government “needs to listen to its staff and treat [them] with some respect”.   He claimed that the same Conservative administration that had clapped for the NHS at the onset of the pandemic had since “targeted” unions, resulting in waves of strike action across different disciplines.

“We need to change the rosters for the staff and the working cycle for the staff.  The Labour Party…has stated we’re going to create 40,000 additional [elective hospital] appointments per week – and we’re going to do this in conjunction with the staff.

“The doctors and nurses within our wonderful NHS are the best people to decide what’s best for the NHS and how to deal with the challenges that we have. They don’t want people to have to wait two years for a scan.

“We’re going to start using facilities into the evenings and at weekends – and guess who mentioned that to us, who proposed that to us?   The staff,” Mr. Foster explained.

Tory candidate Katherine Fletcher – South Ribble’s most recent MP – defended her government’s record, stating that it had achieved what no other had done “for decades” by drawing up “a long-term workforce plan…to understand what training places [are needed].”

She added:  “I’ve personally campaigned to make sure that UCLan’s [the University of Central Lancashire’s] medical school places increase, because they’re a very paltry figure – and we want local doctors trained here from our local community to work in local hospitals.”.

However, Ms. Fletcher – who also claimed credit for securing a replacement for the Royal Preston Hospital to be built somewhere in South Ribble – blasted striking junior doctors for “holding out for a 35 percent pay rise – and it is absolutely criminal”.   She said it was “letting down their other colleagues within the NHS”, who had agreed to reforms of terms and conditions.

The junior doctors committee of the British Medical Association – whose members began a five-day walkout exactly a week ahead of polling day on 4th July – says its 35 percent claim is needed in order to restore the pay junior doctors have lost over the past 15 years.

Meanwhile, Liberal Democrat candidate Ange Turner said her party had put an “£8bn package” at the heart of its election campaign to “invest in health and care”

Housing ladder fears

The prospect of home ownership was described as “an unattainable dream” for the young, which had slipped even further out of reach as a result of recent interest rate rises and the cost-of-living crisis.

However, Conservative candidate Katherine Fletcher, said it was not impossible for the young to purchase a property in some parts of the constituency – and claimed her party’s stamp duty plans would help.

“You can buy a three bedroom terrace home within 15 minutes walk of Leyland train station, which is on the direct line to Manchester, for approximately £125,000 – and two people earning below the average wage could…with support from government, like abolishing stamp duty for first time buyers [on properties up to £425K], find that accessible home, with some saving.

“Now, does that mean that that’s true all over the constituency? No, absolutely not. But I think it’s important to remember that we aren’t London and the south east,” said Ms. Fletcher, who was South Ribble’s MP from 2019 until Parliament was dissolved last month.

However, her Labour opponent Paul Foster said “wholesale planning reform” was needed – as well as a return to council housing.

“We must allow local authorities, like we have started doing here in South Ribble, to build their own social homes at affordable rents.   That is the only way we’re going to get enough homes in South Ribble for our children and our friends and our families to live in.

“The undersupply is chronic. We have almost 4,000…families awaiting…social housing in South Ribble.  They’re living in temporary accommodation, some of them – others [are in] private rented, which is neither fit-for-purpose and is probably about twice the going rate,” said Mr. Foster, who is also the leader of South Ribble Borough Council.

Liberal Democrat candidate Ange Turner said the planning system was “broken”

Reform UK representative Andy Hunter credited the district authority in South Ribble with doing “a pretty good job” of discharging its planning duties.

He added:  “This is not an inexpensive area and therefore the cost of houses is going to be quite often above the ranges of many people, not just young people.

“We have got a lot of brownfield sites that could possibly be potential development areas and if we put the right thoughts into how we can do that – and we get the right people to invest – we can probably start building sensible patterns of housing across the relevant areas,” Mr. Hunter said.

Elected mayor

Labour’s Paul Foster said a mayor with powers like those enjoyed by Andy Burnham in Greater Manchester was ”the best opportunity” for the county – but his Conservative counterpart Katherine Fletcher blasted him for seeking “another tier of local government”.

A provisional devolution deal for Lancashire was finally struck late last year between the government and the three top-tier local authorities in the area – Lancashire County Council and Blackpool and Blackburn with Darwen councils.

The calling of the snap election actually meant the legislation to bring the new arrangements into force did not make it through Parliament, leaving in limbo a deal that Lancashire first started to pursue eight years ago.

That by-product of the forthcoming poll was welcomed by Mr. Foster who said he wanted to secure a different deal for Lancashire.

“What I want to see…is a full on ‘tier three’ elected mayor combined authority for Lancashire – just the same as we have in Liverpool and in Manchester  That would bring [a] huge amount of investment into our county

“We need an elected mayor for Lancashire, with all the tier three powers that go with it.  That is singularly the best opportunity that this county has – and South Ribble has – to deal with [the] huge infrastructure [and] transport challenges that we face.

“So that’s what I would be championing and promoting if I’m elected your MP,” the Labour candidate added.

However, Katherine Fletcher said the country needed fewer politicians, “not more of us” – noting that, unlike Greater Manchester, Lancashire already had two main levels of local government in most areas even before a mayor was brought into the equation.

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