Prime Minister David Cameron made efforts to reassure voters in Northumberland on local concerns such as the A1, ambulance cover and the privatisation of search and rescue during his visit to Alnwick on Monday.
In an exclusive interview, the Tory leader also talked about windfarms, supporting small businesses, the Labour Party’s manifesto and local newspapers’ role in communities.
Mr Cameron was last in Northumberland at the beginning of December to announce the £290million allocated for the dualling of the A1 between Morpeth and Ellingham and improvements further north.
The Highways England Delivery Plan 2015 to 2020 was recently published, with a target start date for the construction of 2018, but some residents remain dubious as to whether the scheme will actually come to fruition or languish as an unfulfilled pre-election promise.
The Prime Minister said: “The money is there, the budget is there, the capital funding is secure, it’s all going ahead as announced.
“I know that some people, including Anne-Marie (Trevelyan, Conservative candidate for Berwick), want it to go even further and to find even more money and I know if elected, when elected, Anne-Marie will do exactly that.
“I can guarantee the money is there; we would not have made these announcements if we hadn’t secured the capital funding. Remember, we are saying that capital funding will grow with growth in the economy so the budget’s there.”
Mr Cameron heard about the incident at Seahouses over the Easter weekend in which a woman was airlifted to hospital by the RAF Boulmer search and rescue (SAR) helicopter as the ambulance was 90 minutes away, higlighting concerns about ambulance cover and the loss of SAR in Northumberland under the new privatised service.
On ambulance cover, he said: “We are currently hiring more paramedics, we have more ambulances, ambulance drivers and ambulance teams than we did five years ago, but across the country, more are being hired because we have to get on top of waiting times and make sure people don’t have to wait too long.”
Mr Cameron did concede the new SAR regime was a change, adding that Anne-Marie is going to be watching it closely.
“But in terms of the change from a military to a civilian contract, they should do a very good job,” he continued. “They have got a modern helicopter fleet, they are a very good company and they do a lot of work in the North Sea so we are confident they are going to be able to deliver, but we will monitor it very carefully to make sure people are getting a good service.”
Another concern which keeps rearing its head in Northumberland is wind energy and on this issue, the Prime Minister agreed with those residents who feel that the county has had more than its fair share of turbines.
“I think they have got a right to think that which is why, if elected, we are going to take away the public subsidy from onshore wind and give greater power to the local planning system so that if local people don’t want windfarms, they can reject them.
“I think that will effectively mean that there won’t be any more onshore wind. As a nation, something like 10 per cent of our electricity is going to come from onshore wind and I think frankly that’s enough, it doesn’t need to be subsidised any more.
“That’s a key part of the Conservative platform and I don’t think you will get that with the other parties.
“We should continue with the offshore wind, that’s a good industry for Britain, but with onshore wind, I think people in Northumberland are right; we have had enough, we don’t want any more.”
Mr Cameron’s trip to Alnwick saw him meet butcher Mark Turnbull and chip-shop owner and Alnwick Chamber of Trade chairman Carlo Biagioni.
Asked about how a Conservative Government would support traders and small businesses, particularly in small towns and rural areas remote from Westminster, he underlined the steps that have already been taken in this Parliament as well as what would be done in the future.
“Small businesses are the lifeblood of our economy, that’s where the jobs and growth are coming from,” he said. “Also, our town centres are vital and vibrant and I want to keep it that way.
“We have helped small business with business rates, we have cut their National Insurance bill through our employment allowance, which can save small business £2,000, and we have also cut business taxes more generally, and regulation.
“But if we want our high streets to thrive and small business to thrive, we need to use them so I think we need to encourage people to value their local high streets and local towns.
“A Conservative Government would go on trying to help with business rates through our review, keeping the economy strong, keeping interest rates low, keeping taxes down so that small business can flourish.”
As his visit also took in the Northumberland Gazette office, Mr Cameron was asked about the importance of local newspapers and media to communities and also democracy.
“I think local newspapers play a really key role,” he said.It’s not just the vital information, the sports results and the local news, local newspapers are part of the social glue that holds our communities together. They are vitally important in our democracy because they challenge local councils, they challenge politicians, they ask the questions and they stimulate the debate. For all those reasons, local papers play a great role.
“And I’d add something to that; I talk about the Big Society where we encourage volunteering, philanthropy and people taking action in their local communities. Local newspapers do as much of that as anybody, encouraging the heroes and heroines that make local communities, like where we are here in Alnwick, so strong.”