Chris Matheson is the Labour candidate for the General Election in December
Tell us about yourself and why you’re standing for election
I grew up near here, I live here, this is home. Its been a huge privilege over the last years to represent my home city. Even in opposition we’ve managed to achieve some decent wins. Its very frustrating to be in opposition and see Government policies affect Chester so much. You walk through Chester and you can see 9 years of Conservative authority in front of your eyes, homelessness, decline of the high street, boarded up shops or people just not having enough money in their pockets. Imagine what we could achieve with the investment and fairness and drive of a Labour government. Theres so much to achieve
What are your top 3 priorities for Chester if elected ?
Number one we can no longer ignore the climate emergency. Labour has a national policy, the Green New Deal, but theres loads of stuff we can achieve locally. I want to help the local business community develop hydrogen production which will give us clean fuels and improve public transport provision. We can drive forward eco house building for social housing and affordable housing.
Secondly to improve transport links. The geography of Chester is such that all the roads are focussed on one bridge , the railway provision is utterly inadequate particularly if you want to go to Manchester. Trains are unreliable and far too expensive, 20 quid a day almost to get from Chester to Manchester ,its the same price as Paris to Lyon! You might get enough people for 5 cars, and a 2 car train turns up, late. We need to get a rail system in that works. We want to reregulate buses so they work for passengers and not the bus companies. I’d like a scrappage scheme and bring in clean fuel burning buses , so bus provision is cleaner. The road system, whether its the M56 which I’m concerned wont be in the next road improvement strategy, or trying to get progress on the western relief road which is going on very slowly, but is going along. This would fit very nicely into Labours plans for major infrastructure investments.
I have to say education. Chester’s schools have been crushed by years of Conservative cuts. Blacon high school has lost over £1000 per pupil per year since 2015. I was at Christleton High this morning , they’ve lost £240 per pupil. It means larger class sizes, smaller curriculum with fewer career choices, less individual support, certainly less special needs support. It has a crushing effect, we end up with a lost generation. We have to invest in our schools and our future.
How would you describe Chester to someone that doesn’t know it ?
Historic, beautiful, a great mix of the countryside and the city. But also lacking in self confidence. I do wish we were a lot more prouder of what we’ve got. When I talk to other MPs, they say Chester is beautiful , they wish they could represent somewhere like that. I’m biased because I grew up here… we need to be more self confident rather than always saying for example, “ooh bloody Hell York does it better”. For sure theres more we can do, but lets have confidence in who we are and what we can achieve. That lack of self confidence I’m afraid is a key character of Chester and I want to drive it out.
What’s your favourite thing to do in Chester ?
I like going to the football but I haven’t been for several months because I work on a Saturday and I’m in London on a Tuesday. I like going to some of the cultural offerings that we have, and I think particularly the Cathedral has done very well over the last few years in being a centre for artistic expositions. Not just the Knife Angel, a few of the exhibitions have been outstanding. Another thing I’m pleased about is the growth of the market , I claim a little bit of credit in the improvement but most of the credit must go to the market traders themselves. When you’re in the market , of course you have to go and pay homage to the Chester in Lego exhibition!
We have seen a huge increase in homelessness in Chester over the last few years. What policies/funding would you put in place to address the issue?
Homelessness is a direct result of austerity, the deliberate decision to cut funding to public services. Those cuts have consequences, and at the end of the line its always a human being. I am concerned that too many people complain to me about the sight of the homeless and not the plight of the homeless. It is a visible sign of decline and the causes are myriad. There isn’t enough housing stock that is affordable, or the right type of housing for individuals, one bedroom flats for example for young people. The only people building housing at the moment are private developers, and they tend to build houses with the biggest return. I haven’t got a problem with people making a profit but housing needs should be addressed and not just the needs of developers.
There’s other issues as well, insecurity at home due to family breakdown. Insecure work, people not knowing from one week to the next how much income they’re getting, not being able to pay the rent. And then support services , for people who are vulnerable have been cut, for example the privatisation of the drug and alcohol clinic in Boughton, we’re talking about mental health services, it can take 18 months from a first referral to get an appointment with a psychiatrist. If you’re in a chaotic life there are no support services to help you due to Government cuts. But its not all doom and gloom I pay tribute to local groups and local councillors, groups like Chester Aid to the Homeless (CATH) and SHARE, and particularly the churches and Cathedral who have come together through groups like Outside In, to coordinate their work and provide a little bit of respite for people with very difficult lives. That coordinated effort despite the cuts is paying dividends and I pay tribute to those groups.
What’s your view on the ongoing homeless protest ?
The truth is I don’t blame these people for feeling pissed off. They have been failed by a society that has prioritised cuts over services and housing. I do get a little frustrated when its the council who are the target of the protesters , when I know for a fact, that they genuinely want to solve the crisis and they are making steps to resolve it. But the fact is when you take £330 million quid off Cheshire West , which is what has happened since 2010, and over half of our budget is being spent on adult social care and care for young people , other areas and services will fall by the wayside. I don’t want the council to get blamed for something they are not responsible for. The protesters who are moving from squat to squat, have every right to feel failed by a system that does not provide housing for them. But that’s a national problem, homelessness has trebled in the north west since 2010 and that’s a national scandal.
How safe is Frodsham street ?
I drove up Frodsham street the other week for the first time, I was delivering something to one of the charity shops. I went slowly, very slowly and respected the fact that is a shared space. I give thanks to the big posts that are sticking out of the ground and I have never been convinced about shared space. The one by the railway station is still chaotic. We are getting used to Frodsham street and I think most of the buses there understand how it works. I’m concerned for people who are visually impaired who need a curb to walk along and I’m not quite sure that we are catering for people with disabilities. But I walk down Frodsham street regularly, I keep my eyes open but I feel safe enough.
How did you vote in the EU referendum and what do you think the impact of Brexit will be on Chester, positive/negative/both ?
I voted remain, given the chance I would vote remain and I would campaign to remain. I think Brexit’s a disaster its an act of national lunacy. So many industries around Chester, automotive, chemicals, aerospace, will all be very badly damaged by Brexit. Its not just the financial cost , its the cultural and social implications of Brexit. If you look at the reporting of hate crime there has been a spike since 2016. I speak to families who host students who come to Chester , and those families have identified a spike in racist behaviour towards some of theirs students. That’s not the kind of country I want to live in. I want to live in a country that is welcoming , outward looking and internationalist in its perspective and I’m worried we’re not going that way. I will fight for that type of country and against the madness and chaos of Brexit. Lets be clear if we leave the EU on the 31st January , that’s only when Brexit begins. Ten more years of turmoil begin.
What can Chester improve on ?
Its self confidence. Recognising the great offer we have and the great people we have, instead of kicking ourselves for things we’re not responsible for. Transport , we need to improve our connectivity with other parts of the region. I’d like to see more provision for cycling, even if it just more cycle racks and that’s one thing I’m trying to get the council to consider for the Northgate scheme. We have demonstrated with Storyhouse, which I always add was a cross party achievement , just how well we can do with art and culture. I’d like to see more art exhibition space for individuals. The Cathedral has been really good at leading on this, we are looking at one of the buildings in the centre or maybe the Castle site as a new arts space. That should compliment the existing arts space not replace it, we can become a city of art where the people are enriched and people become a lot more understanding of the world around them.
Do you support the Northgate development ?
Yes. Its been going on for far too long, 20 years or more and its about time that we came together as a city, cross party, to get the scheme up and running. It will revitalise and regenerate that part of town. I am pleased that in response to concerns and criticisms the council have amended some of the proposals and also in terms of responding to changes within the retail and property market. House of Fraser was a blow but at least they pulled out while we still had time to alter the plans. I would like to see housing in phase 2 and its great to have that included. I’d like to address the climate change crisis by having , within the car park, not just cycle spaces , but charging for electric vehicles. There will be trunking put in during the construction phase, so we could end up with the first car park in the county which will have 100% EV charging points. That’s the kind of vision and ambition I want to deliver.
How would you describe your record?
Not bad at all for an opposition MP during a period of horrendous cuts. I like to think I have a record of hard work and for genuinely caring about the constituents I serve. I am genuinely concerned about the area I represent. Theres been some big ticket achievements we have managed to really roll out connectivity of fibre broadband from both BT and Virgin, although BT are still refusing to connect some of their cabinets and I want to take that fight back to them
Obviously we’re really pleased with the opening of the castle and the latest development of that is the refurbishment of the Agricola Tower and people will be able to visit that shortly. That will improve our offer to tourists as we build upon that bit by bit.
I’ve had a good fight on some individual cases. Those in the public domain include when we got Ray Tindall released from unfair imprisonment in India. He was an ex serviceman , him and 5 others were arrested on trumped up charges, they were entirely innocent. The Foreign Office didn’t really want to know, we managed to get them back. I was particularly pleased when Ray walked through arrivals at Manchester airport and I was there to pick him up, it was one of my best moments.
Its no secret I am very unhappy with the case of Rebecca Coriam from Guilden Sutton, who disappeared. Mr and Mrs Coriam are very important constituents of mine and I am continuing to fight for truth and justice in that case and I am not giving up that fight. Theres plenty more to be done in Chester and I want to be the one that does it.
How do you see the future of Chester as the high street declines, parking issues, congestion etc continue?
High streets are declining all over the country and there are a number of reasons for it. Yes out of town shopping, yes, the internet. But its also because people dont have as much money as they used to, real wages are still lower than they were in 2008. We have a record number of food banks, 6000 families, alone in Cheshire West that use food banks. People just dont have the money. Shopping is not so much a leisure activity as a necessity, you buy what you need then you move on. High streets have suffered from that austerity, I dont think the future is bleak. If we get the right government in place that will put money in the pockets or ordinary people, not offshore bank accounts in the Virgin Islands and Panama. As long as people have money in their pockets high streets will survive. We have a great offering here, we are trying to open up some of the smaller units on the rows to make them pop up shops. Its quite difficult because they are privately owned and in some cases we don’t even know who owns them! Dealing with some of the smaller shops and trying to work on rents is difficult.
But I’m not too despondent , this is a great city with a wide variety of offerings, the zoo, Storyhouse, the countryside, the history and heritage. Actually what we need is a tweak in the national economy and Chester can be booming again. If you go into Chester at the weekends, the streets are packed and people still want to come here.
What qualities does your party leader have to be a good Prime Minister ?
Honesty, decency and genuinely caring about ordinary working people. You can see that in the way he relates to people. He’s had an awful torrid time from the newspapers, but he’s also showed a real resilience in the face of those dreadful personal attacks. I think he’s proved a lot stronger than people expected.
Why should people vote for you ?
I genuinely care about Chester. I live her with my family and this is my home. For the last 4 years I have a record of hard work and putting the constituency first. My view is however awful things are, however depressing the city centre feels with homelessness, boarded up shops, yet another shop closing, we dont have to accept the world the way it is. The world doesn’t have to be this way , by voting for me we’re voting for a stronger more equal world where everybody has a part to play, and hard work is fairly rewarded and not exploited, and where we can look forward with optimism.
Is there anything you’d like to add ?
On Brexit, people mustn’t be hoodwinked by this concept of “getting Brexit done” . Once we leave the EU we have ten years of chaos as we renegotiate trade deals, access agreements, regulatory agreements whether in manufacturing or aerospace standards. We need to come out of the European Atomic Energy safety agency. That doesn’t just mean regulating nuclear power stations , it means regulating how we transport radioactive isotopes for giving cancer patients radiotherapy. We are putting the lives of cancer patients at risk. It would also mean ten years of renegotiating policng and security agreements, to stop us catching criminals and terrorists and organised crime. Every apect of Brexit is a disaster and ten years of chaos is not something I’m looking forward to. ..
Thanks to Chris Matheson for his time