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Tory and Labour clash over council funding and ULEZ in Romford hustings

Seven candidates face the audience at the Romford hustings on 1st July. (Credit: LDRS)

Hospitals, ULEZ, and special educational needs dominated the Romford hustings held just days before the 4th July general election.

(Written by Local Democracy Reporter, Sebastian Mann)

Seven candidates faced a series of questions in Romford Baptist Church on Monday night (1st July), compiled by theme from around 100 submitted by constituents.

Topics ranged from regional and national issues – NHS funding and knife crime – to more local concerns, such as the provision of special educational needs (SEND) in the borough and funding for local government.

In his opening remarks, Labour candidate Andrew Achilleos leant on the projections that his party will be successful on Thursday, saying he will “have a voice at the top table” if elected.

The incumbent Conservative, Andrew Rosindell – sitting on the opposite end of the table to Achilleos – said he wanted to continue with his 35 years of public service and “putting Romford first”.

He later said he agreed with some of his rivals’ talking points, but people shouldn’t “be too depressed” about the country.

Reform UK’s Philip Hyde argued he represented an opportunity to “break from 100 years of government that has left this country poorer or more socially divided,” echoing party leader Nigel Farage’s sentiments that UK politics needs overhauling.

The Greens’ former deputy leader Shahrar Ali, standing in for unwell candidate David Hughes, prioritised “social justice” and environmentalism. Liberal Democrat Tom Clarke said he got involved in politics after the birth of his son, when he realised he “did not want him to grow up in this world”.

Standing against the more mainstream parties were Workers’ Party candidate Zhafaran Qayum and one of the English Constitution Party (ECP)’s four candidates this election, Colin Birch.

Both represented the fringes of UK politics: George Galloway’s Workers’ Party is defined by its anti-Zionist and socialist stances, while Birch described the ECP as a “true Libertarian” outfit not confined by whips or party lines. He said each MP, were they elected, would effectively be independent.

Rosindell was randomly selected to open the debate and dedicated his allotted minute to defending the Tories’ track record. He said £75billion had been invested into the NHS since 2010, and it had recruited 44,000 new nurses and 30,000 doctors.

But he was met with boos as he said the government can “only spend what the country has got”.

Achilleos said there “just isn’t enough staff” in the NHS and told attendees after the debate that funding was “not the issue”. He drew on Labour Party plans to launch the “biggest recruitment drive” in NHS history, which he said would “ensure access” to healthcare.

Reform’s Hyde pointed to the reported 10million new arrivals in the UK over the past two decades and said the “bureaucratic” system was now “struggling to cope”.

Labour leader Keir Starmer and Tory prime minister Rishi Sunak were not mentioned, though candidates did trade blows over climate change and London mayor Sadiq Khan.

Rosindell was applauded twice for referring to the city’s ultra-low emission zones (ULEZ) as a “pure tax” on motorists that siphons money from outer London into the centre.

Achilleos said he had initially been against the policy, introduced by Labour mayor Khan in 2019, but became sympathetic to the “need for clean air” after the birth of his daughter. He said, however, there were “other ways” to improve air quality and pointed to the impact of construction sites.

Hyde said the UK’s impact on global emissions was negligible compared to industrial powerhouses such as China and India, adding that climate change “may or may not” be happening. The notion of man-made climate change – referred to by Ali as “scientific” – was also dismissed by Birch, who said the sun alone controlled the climate.

The audience cheered as Lib Dem Clarke said he agreed with the scheme but believed such measures should be implemented “fairly”.

The ULEZ policy, first proposed by then-mayor Boris Johnson in 2015, is an attempt at cleaning London’s air by penalising drivers whose vehicles don’t meet emissions standards. It has proven controversial with motorists who face charges of £12.50 for driving non-compliant cars through the capital.

The issue of funding for local authorities in London proved resonant for the audience.

Havering Council was bailed out by the government in February, having entered the current municipal year with a £32.5m black hole in its budget. It will now spend the next two decades paying off a £54m loan, with interest.

Ahead of last night’s debate, council leader Ray Morgon urged candidates and future MPs not to “forget” about local councils and how they are funded, saying they will be vital for enacting change.

Havering’s children’s services rated “inadequate” earlier this year, and Lib Dem Clarke said it was a “disgrace” that SEND provision had suffered across the country.

The Labour candidate said the struggle had been born out of real-term cuts made to council funding since Tories came to power in 2010. He said “the buck had been passed” and he wanted all local authorities to have the funding they need.

However, Rosindell – elected to the seat in 2001 – said “everyone but me is talking about spending money we don’t have”. He said the economy needed to “rebuild, first and foremost” before any changes could be made.

Polling platform YouGov has predicted the Conservatives will hold Romford, though other pollsters – such as Survation – have indicated it will see a Labour victory.

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