It’s the economy, stupid!
“Bill Clinton had this sign on his desk when he was running for President. It was a reminder to him and everyone working on his campaign that what people are concerned about is the economy, because from that everything flows, and that’s what I think is most important for people in North Devon.”
Peter Heaton-Jones and I are sat overlooking the River Taw on a glorious spring afternoon in the North Devon Conservative Headquarters discussing what he has to offer the people of this constituency and, why this area is vital in the upcoming election, not only for North Devon, but the entire United Kingdom.
Peter and I have a lot in common. We are both journalists who have travelled and lived different corners of the globe, we lived in the same area of Swindon five years ago during the last election campaign and we share a belief that North Devon is in dire need of connecting and keeping up to date with the rest of the country.
In a world where people are desperate to be liked, begging for attention and are in constant need of positive reinforcement, Peter Heaton-Jones decided to enter into not one, but two careers where generally speaking people hate you. Politics and Journalism.
I’m proud of the fact that I haven’t been a career politician. I don’t think it works when people come out of Uni and come straight into a job with a research department or one of the parties and then before they’re 30 become an MP. I don’t think that’s healthy at all.
I was living for a time in Australia and I volunteered to help on the political campaign of a young guy, in his late 20s, who was hoping to become a liberal member of the New South Wales Parliament in a seat that the liberals did not hold. I just walked into their office one day and said that I would like to volunteer to help, because it sounded quite fun to be walking the beaches of northern Sydney delivering leaflets throughout the summer. I caught the bug. We ran a successful campaign, he won and we overturned a huge majority for the opposition and from there he employed me to run his office.
Why come back from Australia?
This is my home, I wish it were more complicated than that. I hadn’t gone to Australia on a permanent basis anyway, I went out with the right to work for a few years, but it was never my intention to stay there for longer than that. The long term plan was to come back here.
If you had to choose, Bondi Beach or Saunton Beach?
“Saunton every time!”
All we’ve heard throughout this campaign is austerity, the NHS and Nicola Sturgeon.
What key policies or ideas do you think are most important to the people in this constituency in particular?
What people are concerned about is the economy, because from that everything flows.
We need a strong NHS, but you only get that with a strong and growing economy.
Education is vital here in North Devon, with some brilliant schools and colleges at all levels that do need more investment, but once again the only way to obtain good funding for education is by having a strong and growing economy.
So it goes on and any of the things I could say will all eventually, flow back to the economy. It must be on sound footing on the basis that the deficit is under control, it has to consistently grow and then from that jobs and investment can flow freely. We are already seeing in North Devon, low rates of unemployment, much lower than the county average and much lower than the rest of the UK. To some extent it is seasonal, but then again the tourism industry will thrive once we have a good economy, because then people will have the confidence to come and spend their money.
Connectivity is the biggest issue here in North Devon. Students are always complaining about having to come home because travel can be a nightmare. Coming back from places like Cardiff and Bristol takes far too long due to the limited train and road access to the area. What are the realistic possibilities over the next five years in you win the seat here?
I’m glad you used the word connectivity, because that is a “catch all” term that I’m using an awful lot, because North Devon is isolated in all sorts of ways. We are isolated because we only have the one significant road from the motorway network, we’ve only got the one railway line but also connectivity regarding broadband and mobile phone signal so it’s all an entire package.
Realistically, you don’t get anything if you don’t ask. What has happened for the last 23 years is that not enough has been done to shout loudly enough for what we need. We need major investment in the link road because it’s not fit for purpose as it stands now, we need major investment in the Tarka Line because it’s a single track and it’s crazy that it takes over an hour to get to Exeter because you can drive there quicker! As far as broadband and mobile phones are concerned, the government talks about the 5% of hard to reach areas, whereas we have about 25% of hard to reach areas here in North Devon.
We have to ask and we have to say this is what we want and this is what we are hoping to achieve, from there we negotiate as necessary, but once again if we don’t have a strong and growing economy then there’s never going to be the money to invest in connectivity in North Devon.
We won’t have a full blown dual carriage-way from Tiverton to Barnstaple in the next five years, of course not.
What I’m promising to do is to campaign to get the best for North Devon.
This is a long-term project, but we have to start somewhere.
Let’s lobby for as much as we can possibly get, let’s lobby for a dual-carriage way between Tiverton and Barnstaple, let’s lobby for a proper rail service between Exeter and here, and let’s lobby to get great broadband and mobile signals across North Devon.
People of North Devon always get excited by a day out to Exeter… they grab a Starbucks or Nandos and spend the day shopping and spending money there. Why can’t Barnstaple compete?
If you look over my shoulder, we are facing the huge Anchor Wood bank development. I took William Hague there a month ago, because when I found out he was touring the South West, I was determined to show him what we should be proud of in Barnstaple. We are a growing economy and the town is really going through a transformation.
You are absolutely right though, people do need to be able to stay here in Barnstaple, they need to spend their money here in Barnstaple and we need to get the jobs here in Barnstaple. With the developments going on here, including Green Lanes and their new owner, it will all feed into growth of this area. I don’t just think about Barnstaple though, people should stay in North Devon. In my view you’re crazy if you want to leave here to enjoy yourself and have a day out because we have the best beaches, gorgeous towns and with the countryside and villages, North Devon really is the place to see.
Nick Harvey has been MP for North Devon since before I was born… is it time for something new?
We need new energy in the way North Devon is represented. I think that after a long period as an MP you lose a bit of drive and energy, because it is a tough job. I worked for an MP for five years and it’s evident how tough the job can be, it’s a 24 hour, 7 day a week existence and I don’t think after a long period you can possibly sustain the energy to get things done. I offer a new outlook and influence. The Prime Minister is not going to be a Liberal Democrat, The Prime Minister and all of the senior cabinet members are going to be, I hope, Conservative. I have the influence as a Conservative, I have the hotline, if you like, to make sure that the people who are really going to make the decisions that effect North Devon will know exactly what we think and what we want. The Prime Minister was sat in the chair you are sitting in only 72 hours ago and I was able to bring him here to North Devon because I’m a Conservative. It’s David Cameron that’s going to make all of the significant decisions that effect us, not a Liberal Democrat. That’s what I’m able to bring to the table that perhaps the incumbent MP is not.
So you brought David Cameron to North Devon again, how much of an effect does having a great relationship with the Prime Minister have on your campaign and your plans for the future of North Devon?
It’s important to explain that this was more than just a photo opportunity.
Whilst the Prime Minister was here, I took the opportunity to speak to him personally about the issues in North Devon and what I want for this constituency from a Conservative government. I also ensured that I kept this line of communication open.
I’ve met the Prime Minister on a number of occasions and this is the second time he’s been to North Devon with me. I’ve also been luckily enough to be invited to 10 Downing Street on six occasions now for meetings with him, where I take every opportunity I can to lobby for the things we need and want here in North Devon.
These aren’t just a shake of the hand and a photo op, this is a very serious lobbying campaign that I’m on, which you can only get with a Conservative MP.
We talked earlier about bringing bigger, national companies to Barnstaple, but a few days ago you took the Prime Minister to Tea by the Taw, a local business that is thriving. So how important are these local companies and retailers to the area?
It’s vital that we have local, independent businesses like Tea by The Taw because they are running a great business over there.
There are small, independent restaurants, cafes and retailers who’re doing great work and I’ve tried to do my best to support and promote them. I’m a big supporter of the Shop Local Campaign to make sure that for not only just one weekend of the year, whenever we are out spending our money, we should try and focus on independent businesses and also supporting our local tourism industry, which is vitally important.
One in five jobs in this area depend in some-way on the tourist trade, from the supply chain and even petrol stations, it’s really important we maintain the tourist industry.
The Pannier Markets here (in Barnstaple) and South Molton are really now recognising what a great asset they are to they area. They are starting to do more and more events which are not only bringing people in from outside North Devon, but are also giving people here an opportunity to spend our money and keep it with good, local retailers and food suppliers.
“The vast majority of the tourist trade in North Devon is small, independent, local, family businesses and I’m doing all I can to promote and support those”
If you win the seat on May 7th, what kind of effect will that have on the overall general election for the Conservatives?
Winning this seat is vital, we’ve got to win North Devon if we are to get a chance of forming a majority Conservative government, which we can do.
We only need to gain 23 seats at this election and we will have a stable, secure, majority Conservative government, led by David Cameron and North Devon is key to that because we can win here.
A local Ashcroft poll recently suggested that I was 7 points ahead of the Liberal candidate compared to only 1% ahead four months ago. The momentum is there and people need to know that we can win in North Devon, because people have gotten too used to Conservatives not winning here. I don’t for a minute believe the argument that North Devon is a liberal stronghold. We had a Conservative MP here in Tony Speller for 13 years and some of the election results during Jeremy Thorpe’s and Nick Harvey’s time here, on 3 occasions they only won with less than 1,000 votes. All but for a few hundred votes either way in those general elections we would’ve had a Conservative MP here.
Polling for the North Devon constituency opens on May 7th and the candidates are:
Mark Cann – Labour
Peter Heaton-Jones – Conservative
Steve Crowther – UKIP
Ricky Knight – Green
Nick Harvey – Liberal Democrat
Gerry Sables – Communist