Three of the four candidates hoping to be the MP for Northampton South fielded questions from Duston residents last night – with the Conservative candidate being criticised for failing to turn up.
Gareth Eales (Labour), Jill Hope (Liberal Democrats) and Scott Mabbutt (Green Party) attended the hustings at the community centre in Pendle Road, where they were grilled on subjects including the climate emergency, coalition governments, homelessness, Brexit and the NHS.
But Andrew Lewer, the Conservative candidate who won the seat in 2017 with a majority of 1,159 votes, sent his apologies to organiser David Huffadine-Smith, who is a local parish councillor.
A spokesman for Mr Lewer said he ‘politely declined the invitation due to prior commitments’. It is understood that Mr Lewer has attended just one hustings, hosted by BBC Radio Northampton.
In their opening statements, Green Party candidate Mr Mabbutt said: “I don’t think people are happy with the status quo and I don’t think they have been for a long time. We can fill that gap. We don’t have principles that change on what focus groups say.”
Labour candidate Mr Eales said: “Do you believe that our town and country has moved forward over the last 10 years? I would defy anyone to come to the conclusion that it has. Austerity is visible quite literally on every corner.”
And Lib Dem candidate Mrs Hope said: “This election is unlike any other I’ve contested. This election is about Brexit and I liken it to a civil war. Families are divided and it has to stop. The only way to stop it is to revoke article 50.”
Questioned on Brexit, Mr Eales said that Labour would negotiate a ‘credible deal’ and put it back to the people in a confirmatory referendum. He praised party leader Jeremy Corbyn’s neutral position on the issue, saying it was the ‘adult’ thing to do. He added that he was ‘conscious’ that he was hoping to represent a constituency that had voted to leave and that he would base his own decision on the deal that came back.
Mrs Hope said that she laid blame on both David Cameron for bowing to UKIP in calling for the 2016 referendum, and on Jeremy Corbyn for not promoting the remain campaign. She reiterated the need to revoke article 50 and remain in the European Union, saying: “Our economy is really slumping because of what is happening.”
Mr Mabbutt said The Green Party had been ‘consistent’ in campaigning for a referendum on a defined deal and had not changed its stance. He added: “It’s the only way to go. The Tory deal throws remainers under a bus and revoking article 50 throws Brexiteers under the bus.”
All the three candidates supported lowering the voting age to 16 when asked, and this was followed by candidates being asked about how their party would tackle the climate emergency.
Mr Mabbutt (Green Party) said: “Our green new deal will completely change how we get our energy, how we get around, how we manage our land and how we protect our forests and waters. We want to spend £100bn a year, but the detriment of not spending that will be so much worse.”
Labour candidate Mr Eales responded: “We have committed to a green new deal and a £400bn investment. £250bn of that will be on an infrastructure fund and the obvious starting point is on public transport. I will fight to get us a fair share of that funding.”
And Mrs Hope (Lib Dems) added: “We have had a green strand going through our manifesto for years. One of our main policies is a big housing insulation project. We want to target 80 per cent of energy coming from renewable sources. Ten years ago that would have been viewed as unrealistic, but now it’s possible. And our policy of planting 60 million trees is wonderful.”
Roughly 30 members of the public turned up at the hustings last night (December 3), with housing and homelessness also proving a prominent discussion point.
Mrs Hope said: “Homelessness derives from a variety of problems including mental health issues and alcoholism. In Northampton the numbers have increased significantly. We would make sure that councils are required to provide a safe place for homeless people to go. Of course not all of them would take such an offer up, but they should at least be given the opportunity.”
Mr Eales, who is also a borough and county councillor, responded: “Our planning regulations are rigged in favour of developers. One example near to me is Dallington Grange, there are 3,000 homes but not one penny is going to nearby communities who are affected by it. And the amount of affordable housing is only ‘up to 10 per cent’ despite the borough council’s 35 per cent target.”
He said the borough council’s planning committee was ‘petrified’ of turning down housing applications due to the fear of being sued by developers.
Mr Mabbutt, who is a doctor on the maternity unit at Northampton General Hospital, said he wanted to help tackle homelessness by looking at some of the preventative causes. He said: “There are a lot of cases of homelessness, but in particular I want to tackle drug use. Our policy is taking drug use out of the criminal justice system and making it a health issue, ending the cycle of criminal behaviour associated with it.”
The hustings ended with Mr Huffadine-Smith thanking the candidates who had turned up for ‘putting themselves at risk’.
Residents head to the ballot box on December 12, with the vote result anticipated in the early hours of the following morning.