Frustrations over major road and rail delays, striking doctors and concerns on controversial Gatwick flight paths have kept MP Greg Clark’s postbag overflowing. Neill Barston meets the Secretary of State to discuss major issues facing the constituency…
Tunbridge Wells MP Greg Clark has called for urgent action on “unacceptable” London commuter services, after a wave of New Year rail delays and cancellations.
The Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government said he is also seeking a review of season ticket prices – with passengers left paying up to £1500 more than in neighbouring towns such as Eridge in East Sussex.
In an interview with the Times, he spelt out concerns on a broad range of key topics including plans to tackle rising costs of social care for the elderly – which in Tunbridge Wells presently costs double the national average, and urgently-needed upgrades to children’s and adolescent mental health services.
The MP also spoke on wider issues such as the planned EU referendum, junior doctors’ strikes, and the ongoing campaign to resolve Gatwick flights routing over the area, which he said had “made residents’ lives a misery”.
Tackling rail services, he believed there were a number of urgent matters to address.
He said: “A lot of people rely on trains – when they work, we have a good service. We campaigned recently for a terminus to be built allowing trains to turn around at Tunbridge Wells.
“But there has been unreliability on the railways in part because of London Bridge works, but also a deterioration in services with staff shortages and other unexplained delays. This is not acceptable when you consider what people have to pay to commute from Tunbridge Wells. People expect value for money.”
While he added that companies including Southeastern had invested in the rail network and rolling stock, he cited a “historic injustice” of Kent rail fares being hiked to fund the development of the Channel Tunnel as a major issue.
He said this had left a disparity where commuters in nearby places such as Eridge in East Sussex paying £1500 less than in Tunbridge Wells for a season ticket, which now costs just over £5000 after the latest annual price rises.
According to a recent national YouGov poll, more than 60% of people favoured railways being re-nationalised in a bid to improve their performance. But Mr Clark rejected this, stating that a re-nationalised service would not have sufficient funds to maintain investment in the service.
He added: “We have been successful in stopping inflationary increases and it’s now in-line with inflation at 1% for customers. Passengers reasonably think that any increase when service hasn’t been acceptable isn’t what they want to see.
“I also think those who are working part-time should have the benefit of saving on season tickets, which is something that is long overdue. It’s also ridiculous that we don’t have wi-fi on our trains.”
With the situation on roads around Tunbridge Wells being equally frustrating as rail conditions, the MP acknowledge that further road investment was required.
While he welcomed the belated arrival of A21 upgrade works at Pembury, there remained much work to do in order to improve the quality of the existing road network.
He explained: “Transport in Tunbridge Wells is always a big issue for people – we still have a lot of congestion through the town and the A21 south of Pembury where it is a single carriageway at Colts Hill. This is not a road that’s safe enough or has the right capacity for its importance.”
As well as traffic and rail problems, the skies above Tunbridge Wells have been thrown into sharp focus with Gatwick flight paths controversially being routed across the area.
While Mr Clark said he supported expanding air capacity as significant for economic growth, he said it was vital the final environmental impact assessment is made before any decisions are made over whether Gatwick or Heathrow is decided upon as a preferred option.
Mr Clark said: “I chaired a public meeting on this recently and I think that people felt that those conducting the environmental review were serious about what they were doing with it. I think one of the problems on this has been the high-pitched whine from Airbuses and we have managed to gain an agreement with Easyjet.”
Asked about where he stood on the issue of the EU, he explained that he had not arrived at a final position, with David Cameron attempting to prevent a so-called “Brexit”.
The Secretary said: “This is a fantastically important moment for people to be able to take this decision. I am looking forward to the debate for and against being made cogently.
“The Prime Minister is negotiating with the German chancellor on this now and I hope that he is able to gain an agreement. I have great confidence in his ability to get the best deal for Britain.”
Another major policy area in which he has taken a strong interest has been healthcare.
This month, striking junior doctors took to the picket lines for the first time in a generation over a contractual dispute which they claim which will put the quality of patient care at risk.
“I don’t think that doctors should be striking. I don’t think it’s the right thing to cause disruption to patients,” added Mr Clark.
“A lot of people will have operations cancelled, which creates anxiety and heartache. Jeremy Hunt’s ambition on this is right – the NHS must be a seven day-a-week service. People fall ill just as much at weekends as during the week.”
As he explained, one of his most satisfying campaigns has been securing new medical facilities for Tunbridge Wells Hospital, which he said had been long overdue for the community.
He added: “There are areas of healthcare that need significant improvement both nationally and especially here, as they have not been adequate, particularly with children’s and adoles-cent care.
“In recent years I’ve helped people in Tunbridge Wells who have teenage children with mental health issues, and they’ve been told that they have to wait six months for an initial assessment – that’s an eternity in the life of a young person.
“In that time their condition could deteriorate, and that’s not acceptable. One of my crusades to improve the standard of treatment and it has a long way to go.”
As previously reported, another key healthcare matter has been the price of social care for the elderly.
According to the Secretary, this is a situation that the government has pledged assistance on.
He added: “Social care for the elderly is a particular difficulty here. From the outside, people can be tempted to think there are no problems in Tunbridge Wells as it’s reputed to be very affluent and people can think there are no issues.
“But things are very expensive here – the cost of finding a care home bed or cost of paying people to look after people at home is much higher than other areas of the country.
“As part of the national spending review, councils can now have a social care precept for care of the elderly. Authorities are now allowed to charge an extra £23 in council tax per household for this care, which I think will help.”
As Mr Clark revealed, finding a balance between his ministerial duties as Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, and representing his Kent constituents, has inevitably been something of a juggling act. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it has caused some observers to wonder whether maintaining the two roles is logistically viable.
In response, he said: “When you’ve been used to being very busy, you just end up working later and more at the weekends to bring it all together. I am not someone who compartmentalises my life.
“I think constantly about the constituency and about national events as well,” he explained of his role, which has involved shaping national policy on issues as wide-ranging as setting targets for affordable property provision, to improving community infrastructure in helping determining major road upgrades around the country.
He added: “It has been very rewarding to be MP for Tunbridge Wells, and sometimes I need to pinch myself when I reflect on the responsibility. It is such a famous place with its history and its diversity in the constituency, so to be the person to stand up for it is an enormous privilege.
“The meetings I have with residents and the post I receive give real examples of problems on things that can be done nationally, such as how we can better organise our mental health services.”
It’s clear he has built up a strong rapport with his constituents, who have made their thoughts clear on a broad range of topics, covering both local and national affairs.
“There’s a very strong community spirit here in Tunbridge Wells, as people have a great amount of pride in where they live,” added the MP. “That means they have high standards that they want to see. When you fight battles, you do so with community support and it’s very empowering to feel that people are behind you, as we had with getting the new hospital at Pembury, which was a real fight.”