A Town Council for Bexhill? It is needed and overdue, according to most of the Bexhill and Battle election candidates speaking at Tuesday’s hustings at Beulah Baptist Church.
The event, hosted by Churches Together, gave a platform to four of the candidates – the fifth, UKIP’s Geoffrey Bastin, is recuperating from an operation – and the Town Council issue drew their broad support.
“It was an issue when I first stood for election in 1989,” reflected Labour’s Christine Bayliss. “We have seen progress, through the Town Forum, but we can go further. It would permit a proper neighbourhood plan. This is not party political, simply the right thing to do.”
Liberal Democrat candidate Joel Kemp added: “I have been to assemblies at Battle and Burwash, which work really well. Why is Bexhill without a proper formal body?”
For the Green Party Jonathan Kent agreed, while also warning the audience elected bodies must be held to account. “At Parliamentary level, the media scrutinise everything, but power must always have scrutiny, including at local level.”
All five candidates have strong local roots, and it showed. Huw Merriman, the constituency MP since 2015, drew praise from all quarters for his readiness to engage with local groups. “Our single most important task is to rally the Bexhill and Battle cause and be advocates for our town.”
If politics were a tennis match, this was less like looking down the barrel of an Andy Murray serve and more of a genial mixed doubles in the park; but none the worse for that. The debate was courteous and thoughtful, and mercifully light on slogans and cliches.
Several major national issues were aired. On education, Christine Baylis would boost teacher recruitment by removing the one per cent cap on pay rises, while Joel Kemp would “free the teachers” by reducing admin loads and easing the “top-down” constraints on curriculum. Jonathan Kent called for all jobs to be valued for their real worth and not by the “hierarchy of salary, where if I earn less than you, I am less respected than you”. Huw Merriman warned that “our workforce must be equipped with skills – or we lose those jobs to India or China”.
Asked from the audience whether the Conservatives were soft on crime and the causes of crime, Mr Merriman found himself defending the last Government’s record. “It isn’t just about money. From 2010 to 2015 crime was down despite a reduced policing budget. Police and PCSOs on the beat are great, but they do not stop cyber-crime.”
Other candidates, though, took a harsher view.
“Not long ago,” reflected Christine Bayliss, “Rother had 32 dedicated neighbourhood officers and that will soon be down to just five.”
The painful issue of social care, and how to fund it, drew intense debate. “We either reform, or we impose a huge burden on younger earners,” warned Merriman. “I am sorry if my party did not fully explain proposals, but all parties face the same challenge.”
Jonathan Kent was keen to see the costs and risks shared and spread, including by changes to taxation such as the £1 million inheritance tax threshold. Joel Kemp reminded the audience that, on this and other issues, Brexit held dangers. “Some six per cent of careworkers – a stretched profession – are from the EU. Will we lose them?”
For Labour, Christine Bayliss called for “joined-up health care and social care” to be made to work better. “There are huge inequalities in the Tory proposals and too many unanswered questions.”
• Geoffrey Bastin answered the same questions put to candidates via email.
He said he supported the creation of a Bexhill Town Council and on the subject of social care, said: “If we want our latter years to be made more comfortable we must accept that a greater share of contributions are essential.”
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