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Telford: Battle on for key seat

North Shropshire | News | Published:

"You need to have a bit of gallows humour," smiles David Wright as a third goal slips into the AFC Telford net, writes Thom Kennedy.

Standing on the terraces of the New Bucks Head, home of AFC Telford United, the long-serving town MP is talking about the travails of his relegation-haunted home-town team.

But it could equally be a slip of the tongue that describes the brutal campaigning that leads up to a General Election.

Having successfully fought for the seat three times, beginning in 2001, he is now hoping for a fourth successive term as Telford constituency MP.

Hundreds of homes have been built in Lawley in recent years

One key issue facing voters in Telford is that of housebuilding in the constituency.

Over the last few years, a huge amount of housebuilding has taken place in open areas, filling gaps in the landscape that have existed since well before the new town was conceived.

The approaches of the Conservative and Labour candidates differ radically.

Lucy Allan has made ending what she calls a "planning free-for-all" one of her key election issues, while David Wright argues fiercely in favour of the need for additional housing stock to ease the cost of living and to make life easier for young people to get on the housing ladder.

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"We are not necessarily ready for the influx of new homes, and people are talking about the infrastructure struggling to deal with people," Ms Allan said.

"People come to Telford because they are buying a dream. They are buying a new life, Telford's changing all the time, constantly evolving, has fantastic new-build homes. When they get here they imagine they have all the things that go with that Telford dream. Yes, housebuilding is right, but we don't want to overdo it. There are issues around that are bigger than planting a whole new Priorslee next to the existing one.

"We've got to get new homes, but we've got to make the most of what we've got. The council say there's 400 empty homes in Telford, but that's simply not possible.

"Building is fine in places, and that's part of Telford's future, but what's unique about Telford is its rural/urban mix. People don't come here because they want to be in a city, but because it's got a very special identity, and if we take that away, the success of Telford will fade with it."

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Mr Wright said: "One of the big issues that comes up with me is access to affordable housing. A big proportion of people that come to my surgeries are looking for affordable housing, and historically over 20 years since the introduction of right to buy, we haven't built enough social housing.

"We've got to do more to build affordable homes to rent, and ensure there's an opportunity to have affordable housing to own as well. Telford has got a new town history. There's an acknowledgement that the town will accept a reasonable level of development. We've got to make sure that as areas are developed we get infrastructure to support that, and we've got to ensure people have access to accommodation that's affordable.

But with the Conservative Party highlighting the seat as a key target, aiming to wipe out his 981 majority, he faces his toughest fight yet to cling to his position.

The bookies are backing Mr Wright to return to Parliament with odds of 2/7 with Betfred and William Hill.

A Conservative win is rated at 7/2, while Ukip is nipping at both the heels of both parties with odds of around 9/1, meaning the outsider could cause an upset in a traditional Labour stronghold.

While Labour leads the poll, odds to win of 1/4 with Paddy Power are nowhere near as comfortable as the 1/12 offered a year ago.

"I focus on my own campaign. I don't get swept up in what other candidates are doing. I go out and engage with the public," Mr Wright says, blowing across the top of a cup of Bovril at half time.

"What other parties are doing is up to them. I get onto the ground with local Labour candidates for the council, knocking on doors."

His Conservative rival for the seat is Lucy Allan, a 50-year-old first-time campaigner who moved to Dawley Bank two years ago in a bid to wrestle the seat from Mr Wright.

"A lot goes on that bookies won't factor in in the work being done," she responds as we sit down at the Star offices in Ketley.

"They don't do the groundwork day-to-day research and if you were doing a thorough poll of a reasonable size, you might find something quite different. The numbers look very encouraging," she says.

She has been supported centrally, with George Osborne, Teresa May, Jeremy Hunt, Boris Johnson and Sajid Javid among the Tory bigwigs photographed beside the former PwC accountant.

"We've had big names right from the beginning," she admits. "Clearly this is a seat that has to be won if there's going to be a Conservative majority.

"It's the type of demographic Conservatives have to appeal to if we want to be in government and last time I looked it was sixth on the list of attack seats, the priority target seats. Inevitably there's going to be a lot of support from the centre."

However, she insists that she has raised her own finances to run the campaign with fundraising events and donations from the likes of Telford firm Nexus Industries.

This is a big campaign, but Mr Wright doesn't appear flustered.

"People want to talk about real issues that affect their lives," he says. "They are interested in talking about jobs and the NHS and childcare and the future of our town and investment. That's how I'm focusing and engaging them.

"We are fighting hard to ensure we hold this seat and make gains across the West Midlands. We are fighting Telford hard and do every election. I have faith in the people of Telford. They will make a choice about who goes to London to represent our town."

Ukip candidate Denis Allen will be hoping to chisel away at both parties' support, while Peter Hawkins will be attacking the campaign under the Green banner. The Liberal Democrats have yet to name a candidate.

The future of A&E services will provide a key battleground and both Mr Wright and Mrs Allan will attempt to prove they can protect Telford's health services.

"If you look at the options on the table form the health service there's going to be a big issue about where the main A&E site is for Shropshire," says Mr Wright. "We are the biggest town, a growing town, you can't design the health service of the area on the basis of how the county looked 50 years ago when Shrewsbury was the biggest town in the area.

"You have to design it as it is now and where the main growth is going to be and that's in Telford."

For the Conservative newcomer, who retains a home in Putney in London where her husband works, the campaign also hinges on "Telford connections", covering things like bus services and rail links.

The third point on which she is standing to protect is green spaces, clamping down on what she calls a "planning free-for-all" that she says has seen housebuilding outpace infrastructure.

Mr Wright, meanwhile, is promising to use the seat to campaign for workers' rights in Telford.

He adds: "We have to ensure we have more high-skill, high-quality jobs. I still worry we have an issue about low pay, temporary jobs and things like zero-hours contracts. I want to see us moving towards people getting higher levels of pay. Improving the conditions for workers has to be a priority. The whole issue of employment rights and skills is a really important agenda for towns like Telford.

"Cost of childcare is a regular concern on the doorstep. People have seen huge increases on the cost of childcare. The offer is to increase the hours of free childcare, and hopefully that will come out in our manifesto, but we are also looking at things like breakfast clubs for children and some schools offer after school clubs, extending the role of the school in partnership with parents."

Mr Wright worked for Sandwell Council before becoming a full-time MP for his home town, where he has lived his whole life.

The Oakengates-born 48-year-old Labour stalwart entered local politics as secretary of the Wrekin Labour Party aged 19.

He is very much on home territory at the New Buck's Head, where we meet to discuss his prospects for the current election. Borough councillors stand alongside him in "the Hutch" and he greets various party members who pass along the terrace. He attended his first game in the early 1970s, when the 1966 World Cup winning squad reassembled to take on Telford in its centenary year. When the old club went bust in 2004, he got involved in attempts to resurrect the club in supporter ownership.

Voters in Telford remain split between which of the parties would do the best job in Government.

The Shropshire Star spoke to people outside the town's Asda superstore to see what issues mattered to them. Unsurprisingly, Europe and the NHS featured strongly. And many of the voters we spoke to were looking at the national picture to determine who they would be supporting.

Brian Thompson, 77, from Stirchley, says he "will be sticking with the Tories".

"There's plenty of jobs around now, and the deficit is coming down," he says.

For Brian, a key issue is the European Union. "We need to get out," he says. But he doesn't trust Ukip. "They're too new, and we don't know anything about them."

Mark Hughes, 25, a soldier from Sutton Hill, will vote Tory. "There's loads of jobs – I've no serious issues," he says. Eric Daniels, 86, says: "I always used to vote Labour, but not this year, The Conservatives got us through a bad patch and we're better off now than we were five years ago."

Doreen Barnes, 67, a part-time cleaner from the Telford area, says: "There's only one politician I've got any time for – Margaret Thatcher. Now she was honest." This time she'll vote Ukip. "But I think they will be a bit of a disappointment," she adds. Carol and Michael Harrison, aged 68 and 75, will be voting Labour. "As you get older the NHS becomes more of an issue," says Michael. "I've seen the Tories close NHS wards and open them again privately, so people are doing the exact same job but making megabucks."

A dyed-in-the-wool Labour man, he points to school building projects in Telford and the fact that the economic crash occurred on a global scale, as he defends his party's leadership record.

Although he won't talk about other parties' campaigns, he's happy to let rip on policy.

"What comes up on the doorstep is the Conservatives wanted to ensure we are all in this together," he says. "There's a feeling that the poorest have carried the biggest burden in terms of balancing the books in terms of relative income and the Conservative-led government has given tax breaks to millionaires by changing the top rate of income tax.

"People feel there's been an imbalance in how the deficit is reduced. It's right that the better off in society pay their fair share in sorting out the deficit. Some changes in benefits have been pretty poorly constructed. The bedroom tax, for example, purports to be about matching people better with housing stock in the country. What it's about is squeezing the benefits of people that can least afford it."

His Worcestershire-born rival, a former Durham University student, experienced politics for the first time aged 12, actually campaigning for Labour under the guidance of her strongly left-wing mother.

"She's very proud," Mrs Allan says. "We have all sorts of debates, but she's definitely not Conservative."

She's also descended from a radical socialist Suffragette, Janie Allan, but was drawn to the Tory Party under the wing of Justine Greening after meeting her on the doorstep in Putney in 2005.

She says: "I don't think people in Telford have a very clear message of what David's record of achievement is.

"In any job after 14 years doing the rounds, sometimes people lose their energy, will-to-win, fighting spirit.

"I got three e-mails yesterday from people saying I've never voted Conservative, but I don't think David Wright wants my vote. Because you show me you want my vote I'm going to switch."

She adds: "If you inherit a strong majority, you've never had to fight in your life. Usually you are gifted it by local party members, so it's not really your seat, you didn't earn it. If he won't fight for it now when I've been in his face for two years, is he going to fight for people?"

So has her party colleague Owen Paterson been handed his seat in North Shropshire, I ask.

"In a safe seat, where somebody inherits a strong majority. There's less a sense of somebody being their own person," she responds.

While Mr Wright won't make predictions, nor "insult the electorate" by talking about potential coalition partners before a vote is even cast, he insists Labour is in with a chance of returning to power.

"The polls are showing it's neck and neck and I think it's going to be an interesting election with all to play for. The Labour Party is in a good place to win the election and a lot of credit has to go to Ed Miliband.

"Historically after elections the party has tended to go through a phase of introspection. He has ensured we've focused on policy, kept the party united and we have an incredibly good chance of winning."

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