A packed audience at Chichester Cathedral saw four general election candidates questioned on a range of issues affecting the area last Thursday night.
With almost 300 people in attendance, Heather Barrie for the Greens, the Conservatives’ Gillian Keegan, Lib Dem Kate O’Kelly and Jay Morton for Labour all answered questions from the audience on crime, Brexit, care for people with dementia, protection of Chichester Harbour, support for young entrepreneurs and the climate emergency.
The first question was from a resident who had been burgled three times in the past year and asked about police cuts.
Ms Keegan said that there had been a lot of changes in the world of policing, but in Sussex cuts in the number of officers were now being reversed, with the force currently recruiting to hundreds of new positions.
Dr O’Kelly raised the issue of youth service cuts and the need for an ‘all around approach’ as well as highlighting the importance of visible policing to restore the public’s confidence that they feel safe.
Ms Barrie talked about austerity ‘eroding’ the number of police officers, but also the fact young people often had nowhere to go and a lack of mental health services, which both impacted on police time and resources.
Ms Morton added: “I’m sure they are doing their best but resources are stretched and it’s difficult to tackle the issues. Reversing the cuts sounds quite inefficient, maybe they should not have been cut in the first place?”
She also mentioned youth cuts as well as poverty and felt people needed to be given ‘an alternative to a life of crime’.
Peter Henshaw, from the Chichester Harbour Trust, asked what each of the candidates would do to address concerns that proposed housing in the Chichester Local Plan will damage the natural beauty, wildlife, water quality and biodiversity around the harbour.
Dr O’Kelly felt the area needed to make the case for exceptional circumstances and focus high density housing on brownfield sites, and while Ms Morton acknowledged there is a problem with affordability in the area she argued in the haste to build housing they should not be developing on beautiful natural land at the expense of the environment.
Ms Keegan praised the harbour as a huge attraction for tourists and leisure activities due to its natural beauty and described it as ‘one of the jewels in our crown’. She had spent a lot of time with the harbour trust and supported the work going on as part of the district council’s local plan review which was looking at many of the issues the trust has raised.
Ms Barrie said new development was being squashed into the area between the national park and channel, but also raised the problem of second homes and empty properties. She called for systematic change in the planning system and the need to look at all aspects for the future given predictions about climate change and rising sea levels.
One of the most contentious questions of the night was if there were any circumstances where the candidates would back a no-deal Brexit.
Ms Morton called it a ‘completely rubbish idea’ and wanted more spending on climate change as ‘once Brexit is over we are still going to have to deal with the housing crisis and climate emergency as that is not going to go away’.
Ms Barrie felt a no deal would be ‘catastrophic for this country’ and backed a people’s vote on any agreement to leave the EU.
Meanwhile Dr O’Kelly suggested 11 months was not enough time to do a trade deal so they essentially faced a no-deal Brexit in December 2020. As well as the single market and customs union she felt freedom of movement was important, especially for young people, adding: “Democracy does not stand still and we need to have a vote on a deal.”
On the other side Ms Keegan felt a second referendum would be ‘divisive and anti-democratic’. But she also thought a no deal was ‘unnecessary and irresponsible and would inflict damage on people and businesses’. She was also keen on a good, collaborative relationship with European friends and partners. But she also added: “It should never have been put to a referendum but we must accept the result.”
One of the year’s biggest stories has been an increased awareness of climate change and its effects.
Dr O’Kelly mentioned the need for retrofitted insulation for homes, more public transport, a focus on renewable energy, tree planting, encouraging more electric vehicles, carbon capture storage, and as a keen cyclist she believed safer routes needed to be created to encourage more people to get on their bikes.
Ms Morton said action on climate change was ‘non-negotiable’ and the country needed to show the rest of the world ‘how it’s done’, while Ms Keegan described how the country would be coal free by 2025 with a large increase in renewable energy and action taken to tackle plastic waste.
Meanwhile Ms Barrie said public transport had to be made cheaper and also mentioned tree planting as well as investment in renewable energy, adding: “The environment should be the basis of every decision that is made. Without this environment we have nothing. If we are flooded we have nothing. It has to be the centre of every decision that is made.”
The hustings were organised by The Very Reverend Stephen Waine, Dean of Chichester, and the Cathedral authorities. It was independently chaired by Gary Shipton, editorial director of the Chichester Observer. Candidates who were invited were those whose parties were represented in the last Parliament although all candidates were formally acknowledged. The other two candidates standing in the constituency are Adam Brown for the Libertarian Party and Andrew Emerson from Patria.