North Shropshire’s Helen Morgan talks to LDV about campaign issues

The North Shropshire by-election is two weeks’ today. Yesterday, I spent half-a-hour talking to the Lib Dem candidate for North Shropshire, Helen Morgan. I was impressed by her determination, her grasp of the issues from farming to public transport, and of the biggest issue, health. The first article discussing how the campaign is going was published earlier today.

Helen spoke of the difficulty in getting to see a GP and the queues of ambulances outside the county’s A&E’s. In a very rural part of England, farmers are struggling in the transition from basic farm payments to the new Environmental Land Management System (ELMS). There is space in rural areas for some solar farms and for microgeneration of renewable electricity.

Public transport is a major issue, especially the infrequency of buses. The difficulty in getting housing people can afford is also high on the agenda.

The three biggest issues

Just thinking about the issues that coming on the doorstep, what are the three biggest problems you’re hearing about?

GP appointments. No one’s really mentioned the specific instance of the scandal that led to the by-election. That’s hardly come up at all. The biggest issue by far is around health services. People are very concerned that they can’t get a GP appointment. And just to be clear, they’re not blaming their GP. There are not enough appointments available for them to be able to get in and see their GP face to face. And although obviously, some practices that do better than others and we are finding people who aren’t having that problem, it is a broad problem across the whole constituency in every town. That’s definitely the number one concern.

Ambulance response times. Knocking on from that is the issue with ambulance wait times. That’s again a broad concern across constituency. It’s been in the local news a lot. So, I think it’s at the top of everyone’s minds. We are knocking on doors of people who’ve had horrendous experiences. On Saturday, we unfortunately knocked on the door of a woman in Oswestry who’d lost her husband waiting for an ambulance. Another gentleman in Market Drayton said his mother waited two and a half hours for an ambulance. It’s really heart-breaking to hear those stories when you’re out canvassing. So, the ambulance issue is very real and t has devastating consequences. We need to keep hammering away at it. Whatever the outcome of this by-election, if we can have an impact on the resourcing for the ambulance service and getting people to get people to where they need to go, that will be a big win.

Farming. It is obviously it’s quite difficult to canvass farmers because they are, by their nature, quite well dispersed. But when we do, they’re telling us that the overseas trade deals have gone down very badly. Meat produced in New Zealand in particular has some lower animal welfare and environmental standards. And I think they’re worried about being undercut. They feel a bit, that they have been a bit sold out by the government. Again it’s this taken for granted thing. But there’s also concern over the basic farm payment scheme, which has been gradually phased out and its replacement, the Environmental and Land Management Scheme, is being phased in over four or five years. There’s a gap in income and I think a lot of farmers are concerned about how they get through that gap with a big chunk of their income having been taken away.

Public transport. The final thing I think that’s popping up is probably public transport. There’s a lot of talk about reopening train stations and that’s great. It seems to be popping up again with the opposition candidates but very few people have access to a train line and a train station. We need to be talking about buses. Something that comes up quite commonly is parents of teenagers saying, “Oh, we’re just a taxi service”. A teenager who is more than capable of going out with their friends on the bus hasn’t got the option of using a bus. “We have to drive them everywhere.” The sense of isolation for young people, and for people who can’t drive, is definitely quite strong.

Improving public transport

So just taking that one on first, how do you improve public transport in a rural area like North Shropshire where passenger numbers are usually quite low?

I’m a big believer that once you start to chip away at a service, the passenger numbers drop even further. The service needs to be frequent for people to be able to use it. It’s no good getting a bus somewhere when you just need to pop out and get a few things from the shop and then there not being a bus home for six hours. We need to improve the frequency of services and I think they would have better take up. Ultimately, I think we need to ask ourselves whether we are running bus services for profit or whether we’re running them as part of our climate change commitments, our commitment to decongest the roads and as part of our commitment to allow rural communities thrive. The council should be allowed to directly run bus services to places where they might not be economic for a commercial company.

Ambulances

Let’s go back then to a sort of a transport related thing. Ambulances. Is that just a question of resources, or is it about the organisation of the ambulance service and the handovers to hospitals?

I imagine the issues are more complex than people like me who are observing them realise. There are three main problems. People who are in hospital can’t get out into care homes, into social care because the number of care home spaces has dropped dramatically. The social care issue that the Dems talk about all the time is definitely causing a problem for our ambulance service. You’ve also got this problem where the ambulances are backing up outside A&E and the crew can’t go to the next emergency. And then at the other end of that is the GP issue. People said, I got an ear infection and could do with medical attention, but I couldn’t get an appointment with the GP. And eventually, they said, well you’ll just have to go to A&E. You’ve got people in A&E who aren’t in urgent situation. They do need help and but haven’t got anywhere to go. We’re seeing A&E’s full of people and the ambulances are unable to get away and get back to the emergency.

I’m sure we need to have more ambulance drivers and more clinical staff in A&E as well. The closure of the ambulance stations is another issue that’s come up because of the [recent] loss of stations in Oswestry and in Market Drayton. When you look at the statistics, they were saying that only 5% of their call outs came from those stations. But that’s symptomatic of the fact that the ambulances are all queued up in Shrewsbury handing over their patients. It’s not telling you they don’t need to have ambulance stations in Oswestry and Market Drayton. They were not using them because the ambulances were hooked up for so long in the crisis situation at the hospital. We need more resources, but we need to sort out some of the plumbing as well.

Housing

Let’s move on then to housing. North Shropshire is for the most part is an expensive area to live and for the most part has fairly low wages. How do we resolve the problem of getting people decent homes at a price we can afford?

I think we need more social housing. I’m on the committee for social housing project in Harmer Hill where I live. It’s been very, very slow to get off the ground, finding the land and getting people on side with it. Generally, and understandably, I think people are quite resistant to having a lot of houses built where they live because of damage to the countryside but mainly because the infrastructure problem of not being enough for places and GPS slots and all the rest of it. If we’re going to build affordable housing, and we need to, we have to make sure it’s in scale with the place it’s going. But we also need to be thinking about how we manage school places, and doctor’s surgeries. And the other thing that comes up a huge amount is water runoff. This is quite a flooded County. And a lot of people say they built this new housing estate and they didn’t improve the drainage system. My flooding problem is now even worse, and that makes him clearly and understandably genuinely resistant to any more housing. We need to have an integrated planning process that looks at the infrastructure you need when you build more housing. I think if we did that most people would be happy to see it. We need to be looking at where the housing is and what we put alongside it to make sure it’s not damaging the environment and services for the people already live there.

Environment

That brings us to environment. Climate change was in the news just a few weeks ago and in the way of things has sort of been forgotten. How much is climate change and environmental actions coming up on the doorstep?

Interestingly, it’s not coming up that much on the doorstep. But we are getting a lot of contacts from people who have been out of work during the day on emails. I think people are concerned about it. We have quite a good message to give to people on climate change. The summit [COP26] a few weeks back was really disappointing. The UK was unable to provide any leadership because we cut our foreign aid budget and cut duty on internal flights and did a whole load of things that don’t look like we are a global leader in the climate change fight. I think as a party, we have got quite a lot to offer. Because we have got this great backstory of extending offshore wind, we’ve got a lot of good policies about reaching net zero, cleaning up water and air and restoring some of our countryside to wetlands and peatlands. I think we’ve got quite a good set of policies that appeal to people on that.

We also need to be looking at the stuff that we can do locally. Public transport is one day. In North Shropshire, you realistically can’t manage without driving a car unless you live in the centre of one of the towns and you are working in there. We need to be looking at public transport and the trains and the buses. And we need to be working with the farming community to help them to be part of the fight against climate change. If the Environmental and Land Management Scheme (ELMS) is run properly, it can be it can be a real force for change. Another thing that came up when I was talking to a farmer the other day was that that the ELMS scheme doesn’t support microgeneration on farms. This farmer had got a wind turbine and solar panels and, you know, trying to think about getting an anaerobic digestion (ad) plant in. It’s just a real eye opener. we’ve got all this countryside and we can use some of it for power generation and then renewable way, I would like to see the ELMS scheme looking at getting microgeneration into the countryside in an affordable way.

One of the things we have had a lot of resistance to in Shropshire is wind turbines and to a lesser extent solar farms. What take do you have on those?

I can see that people wouldn’t want a huge farm of 30 massive wind turbines next to their village but on a microgeneration level I don’t have a problem with it. Solar panels you can put on big farm building roofs without affecting the greenness of countryside. I think we have to grow up and accept that if we want to produce green energy, we’re going to have to see where it comes from in the same way that we used to have to accept big coal fired power stations. We can’t live on this planet without having some kind of impact. We have to make intelligent choices about what kind of impact we’re going to have. No one wants to see the whole of North Shropshire covered in solar panels or force, but the odd solar farm here or there I think people can accept.

* Andy Boddington is a Lib Dem councillor in Shropshire. He blogs at andybodders.co.uk. He is Thursday editor of Lib Dem Voice.

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3 Comments

  • Trevor Andrews 3rd Dec '21 - 8:18am

    I do hope Helen wins and sends the right message across the country.

    However, it’s no good saying we “need more resources” or “ the council should be allowed” these are passive responses that have little impact.

    We need to be saying “ this is what we will do if you vote us in” and have it all costed or at least known where we would get the money.

  • Peter Hirst 7th Dec '21 - 11:56am

    This by-election could and perhaps should be a referendum on the challenges of living in isolated rural communities. Do all these people really need ambulances? A well organised system of subsidised private transport would provide jobs, lessen isolation and reduce the dependency on cars. Who are these people opposing solar and wind energy- a vocal minority I suspect?

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