Saturday, June 22, 2024
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General Election hustings in Burghfield

Photo above: Ross Mackinnon (CON), Olivia Bailey (LAB), Helen Belcher OBE (Lib Dem), Estelle Bailey, the chief executive of Berkshire Bucks and Oxford Wildlife Trust, Carolyne Culver (Green), and Adrian Abbs (Independent). Credit: James Aldridge, Local Democracy

Election candidates in the battleground area of West Reading and the surrounding villages have made their case to voters at a hustings event.

The new Reading West and Mid Berkshire constituency covers the West Reading suburbs and villages in West Berkshire.

It has been identified as a target area by Labour, which has said the road to Downing Street begins in areas like this.

Candidates for the seat debated each other at a hustings was held by the Berkshire, Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire Wildlife Trust (BBOWT) at Burghfield Village Hall in the new constituency.

Questions focused on environmental issues and those affecting villagers such as water quality and farming.

Ross Mackinnon, the Conservative candidate and councillor for Bradfield said: “Wildlife is such a huge part of our early years education. It’s precious. We’re really lucky here, we’re close to nature facilities. It makes you feel better. It’s hugely important and fundamental that we protect it.”

Meanwhile, Labour challenger Olivia Bailey said: “I will clean up our water, I will back legal protection for chalk streams. We can’t have endless urban sprawl. We will tackle the climate crisis, we’ll set up Great British Energy.

“I’m passionate about this area. As your local MP, I’ll have your back, I’ll fight your corner.”

But the prospect of substantial change from either of the main parties was met with scepticism.

Adrian Abbs, the Independent candidate, said: “I think party politics is broken, I don’t think any party will make a jot of difference to what’s going on. I’m always looking for a solution. I think we need some individuals, some independents who can set the tone.”

Helen Belcher reflected on her time growing up in the area, recalling ‘conker season’ and attending Garlands School in Burghfield Common. There was competition over the scale of future tree planting.

Cllr Mackinnon said he wants to see 30 million news trees planted, with Mrs Belcher arguing 60 million are needed.

Thames Water came in for criticism over sewage discharges into rivers in the area this year.

Mrs Belcher said: “A third of the time, Burghfield is leaking sewage. It’s worse in Strafield Mortimer. The problem gets worse and worse and worse. Why hasn’t the Conservative government taken action?

“We can see that it’s getting worse. Thames Water is now worthless.”

She added that Lib Dems will make water companies non-profit.

Olivia said: “The inaction on sewage is unlivable. I don’t understand how it’s been allowed to continue to go on for months. I guarantee a Labour govt and me as your MP will sort it out. It’s a crime that dividends go to shareholders while bills go up. “

Taking a jab at the Conservatives, Olivia said: “This has happened on your watch.” 

Firing back, cllr Mackinnon said: “Two-thirds more storm flows happen in Labour-controlled Wales, where the water company is non-profit.

“The Water Services Regulation Authority (OFWAT) should have more powers.

“But if the government nationalised the water companies it would have to interest. It’s not about having water companies non-profit or nationalised, it’s about getting results.”

Countering that, Carolyne Culver, the Green candidate said: “We need to take water companies back under public ownership.”

Cllr Culver (Green, Ridgeway) reminded voters of her record on environmental issues throughout the hustings. She called for air source heat pumps and environmental measures to be embedded into new housing developments.

Cllr Culver also suggested people should fly less to reduce their carbon footprint. She said: “When the election is done, I will be out there planting trees and hedgerows. I think my record shows that as a cllr. Vote with your heart, with those who will protect nature, and I will do that regardless.”

Cllr Abbs (Independent, Newbury Wash Common) said good ideas had been suggested, and as an Independent, he is not wedded to political tribalism.

He said: “Let’s collaborate and move forward.”

The candidates also debated the level of support being provided to farmers.

Cllr Mackinnon backed support for farmers to allow them to diversify, but the Conservatives were criticised by Oliva and Mrs Belcher for failing to provide simplified support for the agricultural industry.

Mrs Belcher said: “Farmers work bloomin’ hard!”

The hustings was held on Thursday, June 6. Organisers claimed Kate Bosley, the Reform UK candidate had been approached on two occasions but failed to respond.