I sent the emails out around 11pm Thursday evening. By 11.15 I had a meeting set up for yesterday (Saturday) with Russell Whiting, the Labour Party candidate. Not only that but he came to my flat as ironically there is no bus here on Saturdays now and I was already booked to the max on Suffolk Links. As yet I have not had any response from the other four parties, although I will be alerting them to this post, which might change things a little.
Before I report the interview let me tell you a few things about Russell Whiting. He was born in Ipswich and raised in Felixstowe where he lived until attending Nottingham University. After graduating he remained in Nottingham until marrying and moving to London in 2008. Although in London during the week Russell spends most weekends in Felixstowe with his family and friends, and being asked questions by his Nan, who won't let him answer like a politician.
The first thing I did ask Russell, though, is why he was standing as a candidate in what has been traditionally been a Tory stronghold, indeed their 20th safest seat in the country. Russell's answer was instant - "it's my home", he said, "I wouldn't want to represent anywhere else". That left a lot of follow up questions un-needed, as with that statement he had spoken volumes.
Eventually we got to the subject of public transport, which was after all why I had invited him. I started by mentioning the recent cuts to rural services, some by the council, others being continued by the operating companies themselves - as Russell had spent the day in Halesworth I made sure he knew about the plight of the residents in the Bedingfield Crescent area of Halesworth who use the Beccles bus regularly, only to be losing it in May thanks to Anglian. I demonstrated how my village had only last week suffered a 33% cut in our service buses and asked what both his, and Labour's policy was with regard to maintaining rural bus links.
It was at ths point Russell told me that this was actually one of his main priorities, and went on to say that it is reaching the stage where towns such as Aldeburgh and Leiston were turnng into "islands of car owners". He said that maintaining and restoring rural links to nearby towns was crucial. So naturally I asked hm how this was to be achieved. I don't know if he had read my rant yesterday but he said the way forward was total devolution of bus services, to be put in the hands of local authorities, whose responsibility it would be to ensure that ALL communities were served by a bus, even if it was only one a day. If I was sceptical about this Russell sent me a link to Labour's official bus policy, which confirms everything he said, concluding with "We want to see a fairer industry, more balanced towards the needs of passengers rather than the chief executives of the big bus companies." You can see the whole document by clicking here.
One of the main complaints I have had about East Anglia is that there is no integrated ticket that is accepted by all operators outside of Norwich. Therefore if you need to use more than one operator you have to pay twice which doesn't exactly encourage people to leave cars at home. Russell confirmed that if the local authority was setting routes and fares then who was operating the route would be irrelevant as all tickets would be valid on all operators, as they are in London. It would mean profit making routes subsidising an increased number of rural routes, with safeguards put in place to ensure that times and places of less demand were equally and fairly served at all times of day.
Moving onto the railways, which Russell uses regularly to and from London weekly, we both decided that spending millions just to shave 6 mins off the running time from London - Norwich was a complete waste, and it would be better spent making sure what we have actually works properly and reliably. We talked about HS2, which Labour are in favour of in princple, but have made it clear (whoops I used the word) that there is no open chequebook. I asked why MAGLEV hadn't been considered, which when you think about it is a valid question - why ARE we still building new railways which were being built 200 years ago, yet new technology such as MAGLEV, which would reduce journey times immensely, reduce carbon emissions to almost zero, and as they can operate on pillars be less intrusive is being ignored. To be fair Russell admitted he had never heard of MAGLEV, something it seems he shares with the current Department of Transport! The poor man knows about it now.
We did mention the proposals to terminate the Ipswich - Peterborough service at Ely, which Labour will not support. Russell said cross country links that avoided London should be encouraged and enhanced, not reduced which would just put more pressure on London.
We went on to talk about tendering and franchising for the Railways. Unlike buses Labour do not consider it would be appropriate to essentially re-nationaise the railways, but have recognised how well East Coast Railways worked in public ownership. Therefore there would be a public "not for profit" tender for each future franchise. Obviously they would have to go through the same process as everyone else but it would stop the process being exclusive to the big operating companies looking for profits.
That was just about it. 90 minutes flew by and I was left a pleasantly surprised man on a number of levels. It was nice to see how much Russell loves the area - naming villages even I had never heard of - and most importantly he didn't treat me like an idiot, talking in political Sir Humphrey jargon using the buzz phrases of Question Time. I wish him all the luck in the world, and if by some almighty quirk there is a 549% swing and Labour win Suffolk Coastal then the constituency will be very well served.
Before he left, Russell did say that if anyone has any further questions they would like to put to him then you are welcome to email him AS LONG as they concern Suffolk. If you are in Norfolk you will need to contact your own candidates. Russell can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
I will finish by repeating that the other 4 parties have been contacted but have not replied. I will be contacting them again Monday morning with a link to this post. I really hope Russell isn't the only candidate to take up the invitation.