General election 2024: Seven things we learned from Tiverton and Minehead hustings

Moderator Julian Mellor, centre, with Jonathan Barter (Labour), Rachel Buchanan (Green), Rachel Gilmour (Lib Dem) and Fred Keen (Reform UK) before the Langford Budville hustings
-Credit: (Image: Daniel Mumby)

Candidates standing in the new Tiverton and Minehead constituency have laid out how they would improve the lives of local people if they are elected on July 4. The new Tiverton and Minehead constituency, which straddles the Devon-Somerset border, includes the titular towns along with Bishop's Lydeard, Dulverton, Watchet, Williton and much of the Exmoor National Park.

Four of the five candidates standing in the constituency assembled at Langford Budville Jubilee Hall on Saturday evening (June 22) for a hustings event, attended by around 100 local residents. Under the watchful eye of moderator Julian Mellor, who stood for the Green Party at the Somerset County Council elections in 2017), each candidate made their case for being elected before answering a series of questions submitted in advance.

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Here's seven things we learned from these hustings:

1. Ian Liddell-Grainger still doesn't see these events as worthwhile

Four of the five candidates standing were present at Langford Budville - Jonathan Barter (Labour Party), Laura Buchanan (Green Party), Rachel Gilmour (Liberal Democrats) and Fred Keen (Reform UK). But Conservative candidate Ian Liddell-Grainger was conspicuous by his absence, with the other candidates taking the time to sign his name placard in protest before the hustings began.

Mr Liddell-Grainger has regularly refused to take part in either hustings or BBC campaign broadcasts, dating back at least as far as the 2010 campaign when he was running for the then-newly created seat of Bridgwater and West Somerset. In a statement read out on his behalf, Mr Liddell-Grainger said: "I am using my time to campaign on the doorsteps, and with a large constituency to cover I already have a set schedule.

"I can continue to deliver for electors after July 4 and ensure their voices are heard." On top of his absence, Mr Liddell-Grainger did himself few favours by misspelling the hustings venue, referring to the village as 'Langdon Budville' - an error which prompted both laughter and sounds of derision.

2. All the candidates want to be a strong, local voice

The hustings at Langford Budville Jubilee Hall
Ian Liddell-Grainger

Each candidate gave a two-minute opening statement, summing up their party's position and how they would represent the pressing local issues within the new constituency. Mr Barter praised the work of Jeremy Browne, the former Lib Dem MP for Taunton Deane, stating: "You deserve somebody who has experienced the real world - I seen the impact of austerity on a daily basis.

"You may not agree with my politics, but you will get someone who knows and understands this area, and will stand up for this area." Ms Buchanan said: "I think about my small children and the future they might have - we need action on climate change and the environment.

"I will ensure the voice of rural people is heard." Ms Gilmour, who was brought up in Wellington, took aim at Mr Liddell-Grainger's perceived absence within the constituency, stating: ""If elected, I will hold surgeries twice a week, including farming surgeries.

"I will answer emails and telephone calls, and employ people who will be effective and aren't related to me." Mr Keen said: "I've come out of retirement because I'm so worried about what's happening in this country.

"I think Reform are the Tory party now, and if elected I will do my utmost to support Tory policies in this area."

3. There are differing views on how to fix the NHS

Musgrove Park Hospital, seen from Parkfield Drive in Taunton
Musgrove Park Hospital, seen from Parkfield Drive in Taunton

Zoé Beasley asked the panel how they would addresses the challenges currently facing the NHS in "real, practical and immediate ways". Mr Barter said: "The big issue is recruitment.

"We still have fewer practising doctors and nurses than the EU average, and the NHS is haemorrhaging money on agency staff. We also need to utilise pharmacies more - it's unbelievable that Wiveliscombe Pharmacy is under threat."

Ms Gilmour said her party would introduce a "ten-year retention plan" to keep GPs in the NHS, adding: "One of the biggest problems with chronic diseases is that often we don't know what works and what doesn't, and a lot of money can be wasted." She did not, however, guarantee that her party could meet their target of everyone being able to see their GP within seven days, describing it as "a wonderful aspiration".

Mr Keen said Reform would pursue "major reform" of the NHS to get waiting lists down, stating: "We need to look at an insurance scheme in addition to a state-funded scheme. We would like to end training caps for medical students - it's crazy that we're bringing in foreign nurses and doctors to do the work at a greater cost."

Ms Buchanan said: "Our number one priority would be to increase the pay for NHS staff. We need to improve conditions for staff, including those working 12-hour shifts.

"We would like to see mental health be treated on a par with physical health. Social care goes hand in hand - we would like to see more money to free up hospital beds."

4. All candidates want more housing, but in the right place

Plans for 230 homes, commercial space, orchards and allotments at Parsonage Farm on the B3191 Brendon Road in Watchet
Musgrove Park Hospital, seen from Parkfield Drive in Taunton -Credit:Daniel Mumby

Around 23,000 homes have been built in Somerset since 2010 - and since that time the average house price has gone up to £287,000, a rise of 50 per cent, while median earnings are £30,000 a year. Tristan Shale-Hester asked the panel how they would address the housing crisis while "preserving the character and way of life of rural England".

Ms Gilmour called for cross-party working on Britain's "deeply out-of-date" planning laws, adding: "As a Mid Devon councillor, I deal with homelessness issues on a monthly basis, largely on Section 21 evictions." She also referenced the ongoing planning issues in Watchet, stating: "We don't deny we need to build more houses, and more social housing - but it's where you do it."

Ms Buchanan said: "We need to transform our planning system and add on houses to villages that already exist, supported by adequate infrastructure. National government needs to be delivering homes where people need them and at a price they can afford. We need to be prioritising brownfield sites."

Mr Barter - who grew up in Cotford St. Luke and lives in Bishop's Lydeard - said: "We need to give more supply because that is contributing to price rise. I don't think communities resent development, it is homes which are impractical with a lack of infrastructure."

He said Labour would ban no-fault evictions and their Taking Back Control Act would "give local communities more control not over the 'if', but over the 'how' [of delivering new housing]." Mr Keen (a former property developer) said: "If you start making it difficult for landlords, they will sell their houses. We need as many people renting as possible.

"We need immigration, but we need to freeze it because it's affecting housing. While we have legally left the EU, there are still EU laws blocking the building of at least 100,000 houses."

5. There are different opinions on tackling climate change

View of the new Washford solar farm site from the A39
Plans for 230 homes, commercial space, orchards and allotments at Parsonage Farm on the B3191 Brendon Road in Watchet -Credit:LHC Design

Hannah Montag asked the candidates what steps they would take to tackle climate change and encourage biodiversity. Ms Buchanan said: "We want a huge investment in renewables - we must phase out fossil fuels as a priority. That includes stopping new fossil fuel extraction and adding a carbon tax on fuels.

"We would see huge investment in insulation, so we don't need to heat our homes so much - that includes social housing and public buildings." Mr Keen took a different view, describing the push for net zero as "la la land" and arguing £40bn a year could be saved by scrapping it.

He added: "I've got nothing against green energy but it's got to be viable. I would like to see tidal energy at Watchet - we are too fixated on getting rid of petrol and diesel cars."

Ms Gilmour spoke in favour of creating a tidal lagoon between Minehead and Watchet to generate electricity, adding: "We would like to see 80 per cent of electricity generated by renewables by 2028 - that's ambitious, let's say 2030. Nuclear is something we need to tolerate for the moment, but renewables are the future."

Mr Barter said Labour would use a windfall tax on energy companies to set up Great British Energy, adding: "Borrowing is not a dirty word - this is an investment in our future. We want to tear down the barriers to clean energy.

"Tackling the environment doesn't have to be a big state project - we need to be supporting community projects."

6. Brexit continues to cast a lengthy shadow

Prime Minister Boris Johnson on May 24, 2022 in London, England.
View of the new Washford solar farm site from the A39 -Credit:Daniel Mumby

Peter Barman asked the panel how the UK could improve its relationship with the European Union and "restore the benefits lost since Brexit." Mr Keen answered: "What I feel personally is that we haven't got Brexit.

"The people we trusted to deliver it haven't done this. I think we should have left with no deal - we would be better off.

"Boris let us down." Mr Barter responded: "Brexit was a real failure of political compromise - we were promised an oven-ready deal in 2019 and we were sold a lie.

Nigel Farage
Prime Minister Boris Johnson on May 24, 2022 in London, England. -Credit:Matt - Dunham - WPA Pool/Getty Images

"We will create a new trade investment partnership. We won't be rejoining the customs union, but we can do tangible things to improve thing - such as a veterinary agreement."

Ms Buchanan said the Greens would like to rejoin the EU "at a time which is right", adding: "We would join the customs union as a first steps, and see a return to freedom of movement and the Erasmus programme [which allows European studies to study in different countries].

"We are part of a planet of people who should be working collaboratively." Ms Gilmour said: "Leaving the EU was the biggest political own goal that this country has committed since Lord North lost the United States of America.

"We do need to re-enter the single market and rebuild trust. We are paying to export at the moment, and the new trade deals are damaging our farmers."

7. The candidates have different ways of reforming education

A stock image of a school crossing
Nigel Farage -Credit:Kirsty O'Connor/PA Wire

Amelia Ellis, a primary school teacher, asked the candidates how they would ensure schools were adequately funded, in light of teachers often having to use their own money to buy supplies for their pupils. Mr Barter (who teaches at a Taunton secondary school said: "Schools are in crisis - because of recruitment and retention.

"We will recruit 6,500 new teachers in our first team of office. By hiring more specialist teachers, that will make a genuine difference to many young people."

Ms Gilmour praised the Lib Dems' introduction of the pupil premium during the coalition government, adding: "We will take money away from the very highest earners, and companies like Meta and the oil companies, to fund education. Labour have a good manifesto, but one of the sausages they are throwing at the Corbynistas is this claim about independent schools.

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A stock image of a school crossing -Credit:Getty Images

"I am offended that any government can tell me where to send my child to school." Ms Buchanan said: "Money is a good thing, but education should be about inspiring each child so they can reach their full potential.

"We need investment in SEND [special needs] provision, which is severely lacking, and we need to be less focused on high stakes formal testing. We need to treat every child as an individual, to ensure they want to learn."

Mr Keen warned about targeting independent schools, stating: "Not all private schools are Eton - a lot of them will go bankrupt, and then all those children have got to come into the state system, which means larger class sizes. I don't think it's going to solve the problem.

"We would give tax relief to parents who send their children to private school." The polls will be open on July 4 from 7am to 10pm, with the result being declared in the early hours of the following morning.