On Monday night I attended my first Hustings! The meeting was hosted in a classroom at Colebourne Primary School, Hodge Hill. It was a cosy but lively affair with around forty people in attendance, including all six candidates standing in the constituency. In the order they were sitting they were: Phil Bennion (Liberal Democrats), Liam Byrne (Labour Party), Andy Chaffer (Communist Party of Britain), Albert Duffen (UK Independence Party), Kieran Mullen (Conservative Party) and Chris Nash (Green Party).
Before the debate me and other local residents wrote down our questions and enjoyed a cup of tea courtesy of the vicar (who had charitably organized the event). Unfortunately the number of candidates, limited time, and format of the debate meant that only a handful were actually asked. This was frustrating for many in the room as there had been at least twenty questions submitted. It also meant that I did not get a chance to press candidates publicly on their commitment to conserving and improving their local and global environment. But some important issues did get raised and I managed to catch a few candidates at the end.
To begin the debate candidates were invited to speak for five minutes each on their ‘Vision of a good society’.
Liberal Democrat Phil Bennion talked of fairness and opportunities such as apprenticeships, but stressed the importance of a strong economy as the foundation on which to build quality public services.
Labour candidate Liam Byrne talked about the availability of enough good jobs, quality universal education and healthcare. He then mentioned some key Labour policies such as tuition fee reduction from £9000 to £6000 and his desire for integrated health and social care services.
Andy Chaffer from the Communist Party of Britain began by stating that exploitative landlords have no place in a good society, he spoke of the need for more social housing then attacked pay stagnation and affirmed his support for a £10 hourly minimum wage. His anti-war stance, decrying UK arms exports and Trident nuclear weapons programme, was very popular in the room.
Albert Duffen from the UK Independence Party spoke mostly of his personal experience with his church and work as head of a local school. He talked about the importance of different religions working together.
Conservative candidate Kieran Mullen was wary of giving a grand vision and used the time to defend the conservatives record over the past five years, in particular giving GP’s decision-making powers over surgery resources and encouraging more people back to work with welfare reform and apprenticeship schemes.
Chris Nash from the Green Party talked about his vision for a good society being a long term one, inviting people to consider the next 50 years. He spoke of equal access to good education, everybody feeling that they have access to a good career, and an economy that served people, not the other way around. He was the only candidate to mention sustainable energy, arguing that we should look to become energy independent by investing in ‘green industry’. He also stressed the importance of cheap, clean public transport.
The candidates then fielded questions on why so many people were using food banks, what would they do to reform stop and search laws which disproportionately affect ethnic minorities, what they thought about the recommendations of the Leveson press inquiry, what would they do to tackle youth unemployment, and finally whether they agreed with the Trident nuclear programme.
The candidates responses were fairly predictable with most candidates supporting Trident and citing the threat of North Korea and the recent annexation of eastern Ukraine by Russia as evidence of the need for a deterrent. Chris Nash and Andy Chaffer disagreed, both saying that it was unnecessary and should be scrapped.
The UKIP candidate prompted laughter from the room by arguing that it was working class people in general, rather than ethnic minorities, who were searched and that this was because they committed more crime. Other candidates spoke in very general terms about the problem needing to be looked at particularly with regard to section 60 of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994, giving powers to police to stop and search people, under certain circumstances, without suspicion and in relation to no specific crime.
There was much talk of apprenticeships to tackle unemployment with both Phil Bennion and Kieran Mullen claiming that coalition apprenticeship schemes had been successful. Liam Byrne made a point of saying he would like bring back the careers service and would fight for Washwood Heath, the site of a proposed HS2 rolling stock maintenance depot, to maximize space and include plans for other job creation.
I approached candidates after the debate to see if they wanted to comment on any of my questions. I began by asking;
‘What do you think about setting a target to make electricity carbon free by 2030? And what other measures would they like to see introduced to reduce greenhouse gas emissions?’
Unfortunately I was unable to speak with the Labour and Communist Party candidates, but of those I did speak to I got a very mixed response!
Kieran Mullen the Conservative candidate advised me to e-mail him, with the caveat that he may or may not respond.
Chris Nash, Green candidate, said he supported a 2030 target and added he would back more investment in renewables, he is also the only Hodge Hill candidate to have completed Birmingham FoE’s survey so you can check out his response on the Elections page.
UKIP candidate Albert Duffen did not support a carbon free energy target or any government measures, instead he expressed his optimism that technology was advancing so quickly that no government action was needed. He did appear interested in renewables and mentioned Tesla Motors recent release of a lithium ion battery for domestic energy storage.
I was pleasantly surprised by the response of Phil Bennion, Liberal Democrat, who appeared knowledgeable on a range of environmental issues. He was clearly unafraid to speak his mind and particularly keen to talk about his experience in agriculture. He has a PhD in Agriculture and describes himself as a ‘Green entrepreneur”. He owns a farm which grows biofuels and he uses these to supply his own energy needs and that of his surrounding neighbours.
On renewables he said he supports rooftop Photovoltaics rather than fields of solar panels which could be a waste of agricultural land. He also wanted to construct wind turbines on his property but faced resistance from Eric Pickles and his Department for Communities and Local Government. He added that this department had been the most difficult to work with within the coalition.
He then moved the conversation onto organic farming. He was largely opposed to organic farming as he did not feel it represented the best use of farmland and the energy inputs and outputs didn’t stack up against ‘conventional agriculture’, though he did concede that fertilizer use was too high in some circumstances.
When pushed on the 2030 target he said he would support it if feasible but he felt that nuclear would be necessary as a ‘stop gap’ to meet that target and that it would not be achievable on 100% renewables.
I then asked him about pollution levels in Birmingham. He spoke of his time in the European parliament, supporting the retention of tailpipe emissions testing. He also said that he was keen to see a tram system in Birmingham.
At this point only me and Mr Bennion were left in the room and we were being hastily ushered out into the rain by a school caretaker. But once out of the building he insisted on answering my final question; how we could improve green space in Birmingham for people and wildlife? He spoke energetically about the masses of green space currently wasted and it was his view that much of it should be used as outdoor sports facilities; cricket pitches and football pitches for young people.
It was an interesting and thought provoking evening but the environment was not on the agenda, disappointing but not surprising in a constituency facing more economic hardship than most. Maybe once we succeed in getting the green economy more prominent in people’s minds, it will be a given on any agenda.