When Ben Gummer was re-elected in 2015, just two years ago, he promised the people of Ipswich that he would work hard for them, especially in the six areas he put forward in his “Positive Vision for Ipswich”.
Here, Spy reviews the six areas and how much progress there has been made towards each, and what challenges there will be in the election.
The Best Schools
In 2015 he promised that Ipswich’s schools would improve. Yet there are still no outstanding secondary schools in the town, and too many of the town’s primary schools are not providing a good enough standard of education.
While record sums are being spent on education – schools received £40 billion in 2015/16 and this will rise to £43 billion by 2019/20 – and total spending is rising above inflation, individual school budgets are facing a bit of a crisis. That’s because pupil numbers have risen faster than the budget, so per pupil funding is falling. And by quite a lot – the IFS says it will fall by about 8% by 2020. So does the National Audit Office. It’s the first real terms cut in per pupil funding since the mid 1990s.
A proper review of school funding is desperately needed, and while a blanket pledge to ensure per pupil funding doesn’t fall might well be an easy populist approach, at £3 billion a year that won’t be cheap. But Labour are already campaigning at school gates about rising class sizes and squeezed school budgets. This could become a campaign issue very quickly.
Better Transport for Our Town
To be fair to Mr Gummer, there has been a huge improvement in the rail service from London over the last seven years; the number of delays is down, the trains are more reliable, the rolling stock is in a better and cleaner condition, and price rises have been resisted as much as possible. But, and Mr Gummer himself regularly accepts this, there is still a huge amount of improvement to be seen by commuters. The new trains, now on order, will start to deliver some of these improvements. But Network Rail needs to commit to the track upgrades – especially additional track capacity in Essex – in order to boost reliability and cut journey times. It still takes over an hour on almost all the trains from London to Ipswich, and even those few “Ipswich in 60” trains we’re promised will only run a small number of routes per day.
When it comes to the Ipswich Transport fit for the 21st Century programme, it has been seen by voters as a total disaster for the town – and Labour have been very quick to exploit that, despite giving the scheme their wholehearted support from the off. The removal of the roundabout at the junction of Civic Drive and Princes Street may have made it easier for people walking and cycling, but the anecdotal evidence is that it has made things much worse for drivers. Spy drives this route twice daily in rush hour traffic, and frankly finds the Novotel roundabout much worse than the traffic lights, and don’t get us started on the Norwich Road/Civic Drive roundabout either. But with Labour attacking the Tories for Travel Ipswich, don’t expect Mr Gummer to avoid being tarred with this brush. Ironic when you consider how desperate the Tories were back in 2011 to thank Mr Gummer for raising the cash – and how determined Labour was to stop them.
A Wet Dock Crossing and a Northern Route
Both these schemes are desperately needed for Ipswich, and the planning of the Upper Orwell Crossing (as it is now known) is much advanced. The money has been pledged by the Treasury, and despite dark threats that it would disappear if we voted for Brexit, appears to still be committed, as Project Fear turned out to be a paper tiger.
Mr Gummer has always carefully talked about a Northern Route, without being specific about what that actually entails. He knows his Parliamentary colleague Dr Poulter is ardently against it – Dr Poulter has even gone so far as to propose a ludicrous Orwell Tunnel, which apart from costing billions of pounds would do nothing to deal with rat running traffic through the villages north of Ipswich, or to handle the thousands of cars a day created by thousands of new homes to be built to the North of the town.
Mr Gummer was to some extent forced by Labour’s candidate at the last election, David Ellesmere, to back talk of a northern route around the town. But he has always carefully avoided calling it a Northern Bypass, and campaigners for a proper dual carriageway believe that he would prefer some sort of single carriageway link road from ASDA, skirting the north of the town, as far as Rushmere.
How far his position has moved on the Northern Route – and how much he is prepared to irritate his colleague Dr Poulter – will be one of the issues of this campaign, as housing on Northern Fringe increasingly clearly requires a northern distributor road.
A Good Job and a Good Home for every Ipswich person
With the careful management of the economy, fair trade winds, and a good dose of luck, the UK has returned to the same deficit that was being run by the Labour Government in 2007, some ten years after the credit crunch sparked the deepest recession for generations and a decade of austerity. The deficit was supposed to be wiped out by 2015, then by 2020, and Mr Gummer was vocally supportive of the proposals to run a budget surplus – pushing for them even before they became Government policy under the last Chancellor, Mr Osborne.
Talk of a budget surplus was scrapped by the ever cautious Phillip Hammond when he became Chancellor, but Mr Gummer has been lucky on the employment figures here in Ipswich. Effectively Ipswich has what is known in macroeconomic terms as Full Employment. That doesn’t mean that everyone who is unemployed is lazy, but it means the unemployment rate is zero or below when structural and seasonal variations are accounted for. 2.2% of the workforce were claiming out of work benefits last year; just four years ago unemployment was double that, at 4.6%.
Not everyone in Ipswich yet has a good home, or a home of their own. Indeed, home ownership nationally has fallen. Mr Gummer will no doubt argue that we’re not building enough houses, but there are questions to be asked about Government policies in this area – Help to Buy has been wound down, and cuts to council planning departments lead to long delays to get planning permissions, and poor decisions as experienced staff find better paid jobs in the private sector.
Every election in Ipswich has been run on the theme of jobs and homes, and Spy doesn’t expect Labour to do any differently this time, despite the fact that the Labour Borough Council are still building fewer affordable homes each year than the Tories managed when they ran the Council at the height of the credit crunch recession.
Revive our Town Centre
There have been noticeable improvements to the Town Centre in Ipswich, not least the revamped Tower Ramparts (sorry, Sailmakers) and Buttermarket Shopping Centres. But we’re several years on since Stuart Rose, ex Chief Executive of Marks & Spencer, told a room full of stakeholders that for a couple of hundred thousand pounds he could refresh the town centre. He mentioned planting some trees, and installing some benches for seating. Maybe putting in a fountain as a focal point. The Ipswich Vision Board, which Mr Gummer has helped to bring together, now wants to spend several millions of pounds on revamping the Cornhill, including the installation of steps which don’t seem very friendly to the disabled. Rather than getting on with it, Ipswich has managed to turn the scheme into a consultants payday rather than a way of revitalising the town centre in the depths of the recession.
Mr Gummer was made a junior Health Minister at the time of the last election, and wanted to see Ipswich become a Regional Centre of Excellence by 2020. Spiralling demographic change has seen an unprecedented level of demand at Ipswich Hospital, and the problems down the road in Colchester have led to the sharing of an excellent hospital chief executive to help fix them.
Mr Gummer has moved on from the Health Department, but his focus on the Ipswich Hospital won’t have dimmed. He will be aware that this will be one of the fiercest attacks from his Labour opponent, no matter who they select. At every election since its inception, Labour have declared that the Tories intend to privatise the NHS and that the public has to vote Labour in order to save the Health Service. Expect this election to be no different – even though polling now suggests Theresa May is more trusted with the NHS than Jeremy Corbyn is.