Martin Shaw, chair of the East Devon Alliance on Richard Foord MP Tiverton and Honiton
It’s over four months now since voters in the Tiverton and Honiton constituency elected Richard Foord, our first non-Conservative MP in a hundred years, in June’s by-election. A few days ago I went along to his well-attended open meeting in Axminster Guildhall, where residents, councillors and supporters from around the area came to hear his impressions of Westminster and to put their questions to him.
The first thing to say is that Richard is a breath of fresh air – a politician who actually answers questions and says when he doesn’t know the answer. Until May, when Neil Parish’s stupid behaviour threw away the Tories’ 24,000 majority, Richard had no idea that he would become our MP. Living in Uffculme, near Honiton, he was rooted in the local community, and has now taken on the concerns of the wider area in the same spirit.
Sadly, the issues which came out in the meeting were very familiar. Bus services between local towns are being cut, yet again. In villages on the A35, residents still can’t cross safely; National Highways is still reneging on a decade’s promises to install crossings. The prospects of EDDC’s ‘levelling-up’ bid for Seaton and Axminster are still completely hazy due to the chaos in government. And the community hospitals in Axminster, Honiton, Ottery St. Mary and Seaton, while saved by our protests from complete closure, still lack beds.
A reader has chided me to ‘stick to local issues’, but Richard Foord made clear that the Tories’ national mess affects everything. When he goes to meetings with ministers, it’s ‘a new bunch of amateurs every week’, often without a clue about the issues, barely listening to their civil servants’ advice, and more interested in ‘self-aggrandisement’ than action.
Most local issues are caused by national failures or need national changes to sort them out. South West Water is pouring effluent into our rivers because the government has failed to get a grip on the privatised water companies, which are diverting the profits from our water charges into excessive salaries and dividends. The Environment Agency is failing to stop farmers polluting our waterways, it was shown this week, because it is starved of funds.
Richard returned repeatedly to the dire state of the South West Ambulance Service. Everyone is being put at risk by this scandal. Lives are also threatened by the inability of local hospitals to meet targets for the prompt referral and treatment of cancer cases. Tens of thousands of Devon people are suffering while they wait months or even years for surgery. The root cause of all of this is that for twelve years, the Tories have failed to raise NHS funding in line with the growing needs of the population.
The latest new prime minister, Rishi Sunak, even refused to smile for the cameras as he entered Downing Street, in order to signal his determination to take ‘tough decisions’. All I can say, from a Devon point of view, is that these decisions must not take real funding away from our NHS, local schools, or our desperately underfunded adults’ and children’s social care, the escalating costs of which threaten the solvency of our county council.
I say ‘real’ funding because the government will make severe cuts merely by not uprating spending in line with inflation. Sunak is also threatening to use this trick to reduce the value of pensions and benefits. When he was chancellor last year, our billionaire prime minister stole £20 a week from claimants. It will be outrageous if he takes a further £10 a week by refusing to give them a proper inflation rise, or undoes the ‘triple lock’ on state pensions that his party’s manifesto and Liz Truss both pledged to honour.
People are going without food, without heating, without electricity. ‘Tough decisions’ should target those who can afford them, not the vulnerable and public services.