FARNHAM Maltings was the setting for the third and final sparring match between South West Surrey’s five general election candidates last Friday.
David Black (Labour), Jeremy Hunt (Conservative), Dr Louise Irvine (National Health Action), Ollie Purkiss (Lib Dem) and Mark Webber (UKIP) all lined up in front of a 400 person-strong audience for the Maltings’ hustings debate.
Much of the discussion followed the line of the national debates - as the candidates responded to questions on Brexit, NHS funding and immigration.
However, there was talk of local issues too, including Farnham’s soaring house prices, the impact of the proposed new national school funding formula on the area’s high performing state schools, and air quality.
*In his opening gambit, David Black said Labour is "about delivering better services, a better life, investing in our future and pooling and sharing our resources", and blamed the "unrepentant" Tory Government for bringing about Brexit, £1.7 trillion of debt, cuts to the NHS, education and welfare. "They want more of the same, except this time they’re coming for the pensioners too," he added.
He made the case for more social housing, and said the Government should be exploiting the record low interest rates to borrow money to invest in the UK’s housing stock.
The Labour candidate also endorsed calls for more cross-party discussions on funding healthcare, and criticised the current system as "a lottery, where if you have dementia you lose your house but if you have cancer the NHS kicks in and your treatment is paid for" - adding an increase in taxation to fund the health service is “unavoidable".
He said the Labour manifesto would merely return the UK tax base to 2010 levels - not the highest in 70 years as claimed by the Tories - and made the observation “nobody clamouring for lower taxes and big cuts to spending”.
Mr Black added saddling students with £44,000 of debt by the time they leave university to hit a volatile housing market for first-time buyers "isn’t a great recipe for our children" - accusing the Tories of finding funds to bail out banks and cut corporation tax, rather than education.
He also criticised the Conservatives’ record on tackling air pollution in Farnham, commenting that local councils have been “filled with Tories for decades” and yet little has been done to tackle the problem.
*Jeremy Hunt, referring to his campaign for a part-pedestrianisation scheme in Farnham, said the town "could be one of the most beautiful and stunning in the whole of the South East if we only dealt with the pollution and made it more pedestrian and family friendly”.
He added since 2010, the Tory Government has created 2.9 million jobs, two million more children are in ’good’ or ’outstanding’ schools, and the NHS has 6,500 more doctors, 15,000 more nurses and more funding than ever before in its history. The number of medical students also increased by 25 per cent last year, he said.
On the housing crisis, he recognised that more houses must be built in this area - praising the Farnham Neighbourhood Plan as an "excellent start" - but warned tax hikes would "destroy jobs" and likely push up interest rates, making it even more difficult for people buying their first home.
Turning his attention to Brexit, he expressed his “passionate belief" that Theresa May is the right person to battle for Britain, adding: "The fundamental truth is if you don’t have a plan to get us through Brexit then you put the economy at risk, you put the NHS funding at risk, and that would be the biggest disaster of all."
Turning to education, he said the UK has a "very unfair" funding formula which means that two children in different parts of the country can be getting very different sums of money. But responding to fears that Farnham’s three secondary schools could see their budgets cut by £1.3 million by 2020, he added the Tory Government will ensure "no school will face a cash cut”.
*Dr Louise Irvine said Jeremy Hunt, as Health Secretary, has inflicted “serious damage” on the NHS, which she added suffers from underfunding, creeping privatisation and - despite Mr Hunt’s comments on NHS staffing - “huge” staff shortages. "Another five years of Tory rule and it could be damaged beyond repair," she said.
Reinforcing her point, she added that in 2009 the UK health spend was 8.8 per cent of GDP, but since then its fallen to 7.3 per cent in 2015 and is expected to fall further to 6.6 per cent in 2020. There are also unfilled vacancies in the NHS for 20,000 nurses and 10,000 doctors, and the morale of the health service’s overworked staff is "very low".
Dr Irvine also called for schools to be “properly” funded, social care to be integrated into the NHS, more protection for the environment and to free up councils to build more social housing - particularly for key workers. She also advocated raising the minimum wage and removing the one per cent pay cap on public sector workers.
Teachers are equally demoralised, she said, adding the UK’s GDP spend on education is also going down, and criticised the new funding formula for merely "moving the same money around”. Instead she called for more investment to cover rising pupil numbers and running costs, and for Theresa May to scrap "pet projects" such as grammar schools and free schools.
On Farnham’s air pollution - and more specifically its high levels of nitrogen dioxide (NO2) - she said NO2 accounts for more than 40,000 premature deaths a year in the UK, and said councils and the Government must do more to tackle the problem.
*Ollie Purkiss (Lib Dems) reiterated his party’s pledge to offer a second referendum on Brexit and "a clear alternative to the Tories’ hard Brexit", as well as to invest in children and health care by increasing income tax by 1p on the pound.
He added raising taxes "carefully and fairly" is the right way to fund public services, commenting: "We must be honest with ourselves, and ask are we willing to pay a little bit extra to fund health care and education?”
The Lib Dem candidate advocated a "broad spectrum" approach to tackle the housing crisis; freeing up councils and the Government to invest in "exactly what’s needed" in any given area, and tightening up legislation to ensure developments provide the right amount of affordable housing.
On the NHS, he said "honest and very frank" cross-party discussions are needed to come up with a long term solution to funding healthcare.
Responding to Mr Hunt’s comment that no school will face a cash cut as a result of the new funding formula, he said this “u-turn” would make a small difference, but warned of big cuts in South West Surrey and said it was not enough.
He added the Lib Dems are proposing £7 billion extra to increase the pupil premium and invest in teachers, and objected to the creation of new grammar schools and the ’academy’ system, commenting that Local Authorities should be given more say in where new schools are built.
Mr Purkiss also branded Farnham’s air quality issues an “outrage” and accused local councils and Mr Hunt of “dragging their heels” on the issue, which he said requires more “joined up thinking” between the various tiers of Government and investment in public transport.
*Mark Webber said the country has a “huge opportunity” to boost our economy, by embracing global free trade and slashing red tape - "but that requires us to fully exit the institutions of the European Union, including the highly regulated single market".
He added UKIP would ensure essential public services are properly funded by trimming down other "unnecessary" parts of government - in particular foreign aid, and by requiring foreign nationals to pay for their own health insurance for their first five years living in the UK.
He blamed the region’s house price inflation (the average house price in Farnham is now £380,000, and has risen 32 per cent in the last five years) and pressures on education, health and social care on "a rapidly rising population driven primarily by immigration", and advocated UKIP’s policy of building modern prefabs on brownfield sites to ease the housing crisis.
He spoke in favour of grammar schools and selective education, as well as the provision of new German-style trade and technical colleges - prompting ironic jeers of ’Europe! Europe!’ from the audience - and more apprenticeships.
Polling stations will be open from 7am until 10pm on Thursday (June 8). Counting will then take place overnight on Thursday, with the result in South West Surrey expected to be declared at around 4am.