Berwick-upon-Tweed: Big seat, big issues
Thursday, 21 Apr 2005
One of the first things to strike a passenger on the number 515 bus north out of Newcastle is the wide open space that opens up around them. That is because the bus is taking them into the most sparsely populated constituency in the country: Berwick-upon-Tweed, 50 miles long and covering 231,000 hectares, has only 57,000 electors.
England's most northerly constituency, Berwick-upon-Tweed is a vast expanse of forest and farmland, dotted with remote hill settlements and the occasional larger town such as Berwick itself and the market town Alnwick. It is also as safe a Liberal Democrat seat as you could hope to find, having been held for the past 31-and-a-half years by Alan Beith, a short, pleasant man from a Methodist background.
It is a big area to get around, as Beith well knows after more than 30 years of 100-mile round trips, and surgeries around the constituency every weekend. In the autumn, he does a mobile surgery that takes him to 120 separate villages.
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At the moment, however, the surgeries are on hold as he tries to see off another batch of contenders. This time around they are the Conservatives' Mike Elliott, a Berwick-based local councillor and seed merchant; and Labour's Glen Reynolds, based in Darlington, who provides legal and media advice to organisations such as Age Concern and Victim Support.
Beith admits that maintaining his 8,000 majority will be hard work, and is open about his strategy for seeing off an expected Conservative revival.
"They [the Conservatives] started to recover a bit last time - well, they must recover a bit more as part of a national [recovery]," he says.
"I'm expecting to face a stronger Tory threat this time than last time and therefore it's very important that I attract more votes from Labour than I've done in previous years."
Berwick-upon-Tweed faces a wide range of issues, but what links them all is a feeling that the area is not getting as much public money as it deserves. Ever since Berwick's traditional industries - mainly mining, but also textiles and fisheries - began to decline, the North-South divide has become more and more apparent.
Today, Berwick has some of the lowest average wages of any area in the country, and is still struggling to come to terms with disappearance of its traditional occupations. Reynolds describes it as "having the soul taken out of the area" while Beith says the region's whole economic structure has had to change.
"It's changed the character of many of the villages, which at one time would have been dominated by people who worked in the local major industry whether it was farming or fishing and related trades, to villages in which many of the people are retired; others work elsewhere in fields unconnected with the fact that they live in a rural village - wherever they can get to a job - and others are dependent on state benefits."
For Labour's Reynolds, the reason that Berwick-upon-Tweed is still suffering from under-investment is that Beith is unable to exert enough influence on the Government.
"There is an absence of investment - and part of that is not having a representative at the heart of decision-making," he says.
"There should be a vote in the heart of government for Berwick rather than in the wilderness. I do see that as a key factor why progress has not been made."
Reynolds adds: "At the end of the day, it comes down to investment."
Beith, however, has no time for this argument.
"What he's actually suggesting when he say that is that the Labour Party is deeply corrupt - that it only favours those places that elect Labour MPs. Now, I do see occasional signs of that, [but] I don't think it's the general picture of how government operates in this country.
"And if it was so, at any point when there looked like being a change of government, he should be advising all Labour voters to vote for the party that looked most likely to win nationally. It is an absurd position."
Both candidates agree on the need for more investment, however - as do local businesses. Steve Rankin, regional director of the CBI North-East, says the area gets just £4 million in R&D funding from a total government budget of £1.8 billion: "We need some of these government scientists and researchers working in the North-East."
More money must also be put into the region's transport if it is to flourish economically, he adds.
Another problem for Berwick-upon-Tweed is that house prices are going up as the area becomes more popular with retirees and people buying second homes; and when that combines with the low wages, there are real problems.
The shortage of affordable housing has been exacerbated by the sale of council houses, often to people from outside the area. Beith wants to see more social housing built, either by the local authorities or through development trusts; he also fears that the Housing Corporation's enthusiasm for large projects means that the small-scale building needed for
Berwick-upon-Tweed's villages will fall by the wayside.
Reynolds says a lot of good work has already been done by the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, but admits more must be done to create a "commercial situation" in which people can afford to buy houses.
In such a large area, getting around is always a problem. A small population means local bus services are hard to sustain - but many of the constituency's residents are entirely dependent on them. Beith says he is in "constant" discussions with council officers about how bus services can be improved.
Perhaps the most controversial issue in recent times, however, has been Labour's changes to the way in which GP out-of-hours care is delivered. The new system, introduced in September last year, was supposed to make out-of- hours care more efficient and streamlined, but fears over how it would operate in rural areas have been confirmed in Berwick-upon-Tweed.
Healthcare in the area had evolved over a long time to fit the constraints of rural life. The Alnwick and Berwick infirmaries provided a range of services that a community hospital would not normally deal with, such as taking in GPs' patients for overnight observation, because larger hospitals were too distant.
However, Beith says, Labour showed "a fundamental lack of understanding" of those kinds of arrangements when they introduced the new system.
"It was based on the idea that you do everything in district general hospitals because you've got more facilities there and in the community hospital you just put people there to recuperate. [But] it can't work when the district hospital is 50 miles away. And they just didn't understand that."
Having made it a major political issue, Beith gained a review of the new arrangements, and he says the review team has made proposals that, if carried out, will significantly improve how the out-of-hours care operates.
But, he adds: "I'll believe it when I see it, so I'm staying on their back to see that they do."
Reynolds acknowledges that Beith has worked hard on that issue, but is sceptical about his ability to deliver on wider issues for his constituents.
In the remaining few weeks, he will be pushing the line that 30 years of Liberal Democrat representation has not worked for Berwick-upon-Tweed, urging voters to "make a change from voting for a political party that's on the outskirts of the decision-making process".
He says: "What makes this exciting is there a growth in the [positive] attitude towards change. People are now asking questions about how adequately the Liberal Democrats have represented them for 30 years."
Asked about his overall strategy, he says: "A key to it is actually ensuring that regions like Northumbria are not left behind … and it's recognising what are the needs and demands of the twenty-first century. It's all about more wealth, jobs, employment strategy, education so that people don't have to go to a different part of the country to be educated or to retire."
Reynolds will be hoping to make headlines for the right reasons, having recently landed in hot water for calling for Prince Charles to step aside from the succession. He has since withdrawn the comments, saying they were a "totally personal viewpoint" that had nothing to do with the Labour Party or his candidacy.
However, he cannot resist adding, when asked about housing shortages: "The irony is that the Duke of Northumberland is the fourth richest landowner in the country, and yet people are having to move out of Northumbria because they can't afford to live here."
Intriguingly, he adds that Labour needs to be "upfront" about its tax plans. Although denying that the party has been dishonest in the past, he says: "I believe people will respect people when they talk straight on tax - and will pay a little more for better services."
Beith, meanwhile, will be hoping for yet another term in Parliament, and insists he is not ready to retire just yet.