It is said that the good folk of Botley once lynched a man for daring not to drink as deep as his neighbours…Chris Huhne must have had some idea of the how the poor chap must have felt at the first hustings of the election campaign held in the old market town on Tuesday night .
The three main candidates for Eastleigh – Chris Huhne, (Lib Dem) Maria Hutchings (Con) and Leo Barraclough (Lab) along with the PPC’s for the newly created Constituency of Meon Valley, Liz Leffman (Lib Dem), George Hollingberry (Con), and Howard Linsley (Lab) were there at the invitation of the Botley Parish Action Group (BPAG) in order to speak on their parties position regarding the SDA plan to build 6000 houses in the locality.
‘Get there early’ I was told ‘or you’ll be turned away’ a warning I thought it best to heed.
Although this had been billed by BPAG as an ‘election special’ the candidates were asked not to discuss any other policy. This was to be local meeting for local people on a local issue.
The audience appeared for the most to be grey haired and judging by some of the vehicles in the car park – well heeled and obviously insulated from the problems in the economy that currently concern the rest of the country.
Before the meeting could start however there was one small formality
Someone had parked their Jaguar majestically sideways across 3 parking spaces and more space was needed to accommodate the rapidly expanding car park population, would the owner of the vehicle mind moving to accommodate newcomers?
The debate got off to a measured start with Chris Huhne explaining that the consultation process was deeply flawed and Liberal Democrat policy would be to re-examine the case for the SDA. He was critical of the conservative planning green paper claiming it lacked credibility going on to explain it was vital to offer realistic alternatives, for example, by building on Brownfield sites as the Liberal Democrats had done at Pirellis and Caustons or as Liz Leffman (and later George Hollingberry) suggested, Whitely village.
Mr Huhne also seemed to hint that in the event of a hung parliament a deal on the SDA with the Tories might be possible.
Then it was the turn of New Labour. Unlike the polished presentation of Leffman and Huhne, Howard Lindsey and Leo Barraclough gave the impression that they had only just met each other for the first time five minutes previously.
Leo Barraclough looked and sounded nervous. His delivery and the thread of his argument seemed as disconnected as a set of jump-cut film rushes; possibly he had miss-shuffled his cue cards and had been reading them out in the wrong order.
Mr Barraclough said he was opposed to the building of new towns (and therefore also opposed to own parties housing Policy)
He darkly hinted that Council leader Keith House was the common denominator behind the scheme.
Later he went on to suggest that win or lose (the latter being a certainty according to most bookmakers) he would help BPAG fight it’s corner., perhaps it is fortunate for him that the constitution of BPAG states membership is not open to outsiders. – It’s strictly Botley residents only!
Howard Linsley told the hall he was simple man who favoured simple solutions. He did not like being bogged down by detail suggesting perhaps his grasp of the details was not as comprehensive as the other candidates.
He said it was the role of Central government to determine appropriate housing levels – local people could not be trusted.
His solution if elected would be to ‘knock the heads together’ of Council and BPAG members until everyone finally agreed that ’Nanny knows best.’
The event only really kicked off when the microphone passed to Maria Hutchings.
She had promised there would be fireworks and she did not disappoint.
Although the other candidates had addressed the hall while sitting, Maria got to her feet.
Showing all the confrontational attributes that had brought her to the attention of Conservative Grandees, she proceeded to bowl a series of hand grenades in the direction of a startled Chris Huhne.
Taking up where she had left off on Peter Henley’s ‘Politics Show’ the week before, Maria produced, nay brandished, a document she claimed PROVED the choice of Botley as an SDA was down to the Eastleigh’s Liberal Democrat council.
She read out a document dating from 2005 which stated the local planning authorities involved in the decision were Eastleigh Council (Lib Dem) Winchester Council (No overall control) and Fareham Council (Conservative). Therefore, she concluded, it was clear this was all the fault of the Liberal Democrats.
Well, I couldn’t quite grasp the logic of this either, but it did not matter what I thought as clearly a large section of the hall were on the same wavelength. She rounded off with a guarantee from David Cameron that if elected, the conservative government would SCRAP the SDA for Botley and that the best action a BPAG member could take was to vote Conservative on May 6th.
This went down very well with a good round of applause.
Having been thoroughly upstaged by his own colleague it was then up to George Hollingberry to try and follow on.
Later, he admitted on Twitter that he had felt nervous to find himself sat next to Chris Huhne,although he showed no sign of it as he calmly ran through pertinent aspects of Conservative planning policy stressing tax based bonuses that would be available to councils that consented to planning proposals.
During the course of the evening a strange phenomenon could be observed whereby Mr Hollingberry seemed to align himself more and more with the two Lib Dems and rather less with Maria Hutchings – but it mattered little as proceedings threatened to turn into the ‘Chris and Maria Show’ as accusation was met with rebuttal and counter accusation.
Chris Huhne revealed that during the last Tory government, 50% of all new builds were on green field sites and he further alleged that large House building companies were major Tory donors.
Maria Hutchings queried the need for social housing – claiming that there were only 500 people on the housing list in Eastleigh.
“5000” muttered Mr Huhne in the manner of a schoolmaster despairing of a recalcitrant pupil while also demonstrating his mastery of the Sotto Voce aside, which is still perfectly audible across the length of a debating chamber.
Still, 500 or 5000…it doesn’t matter much how many people are on the housing list to BPAG – whatever the number it’s clear they won’t be welcome in Botley.
There were signs too that Maria’s populist ‘Route one ‘ approach might be beginning to rattle Mr Huhne as he had a quick spat with chairman Bev Smith over being cut short.
Towards the end Chris Huhne made an impassioned speech in favour of social housing and should be given full credit for trying to explain the needs of young, lower paid families to his middle aged and middle income audience, warning them that others might judge them as ‘Nimbys’.
He spoke of one home on the Nightingale estate where he claimed 13 people were living in a 3 bed roomed house.
“Must be Polish’ cried one unsympathetic soul at the back.
When the evening finished it seemed to me as though Chris Huhne, George Hollingberry and Liz Leffman had made most of the arguments, but Maria Hutchings had nevertheless carried the day.
Perhaps a wininng argument does not always translate into winning votes.
As the crowd had neglected to bring any rope, tar or feathers with them, the other politicians were allowed to escape into the night.
Today Chris Huhne had a meeting with the Pirelli Workers at Prysmian in Eastleigh, presumably to tell them that what was left of their factory would now be required for a further 6000 new homes.