MPs go head-to-head in a public debate in their battle for the new Honiton and Sidmouth seat

East Devon dentistry, menopause, the economy, NHS services, mortgage rates and sewage dumping were among topics covered by two MPs battling to win the new Honiton and Sidmouth seat.

Two MPs vying for the same new Devon seat have gone head-to-head in a public debate, writes locale democracy reporter Will Goddard.

Conservative MP for East Devon Simon Jupp, and Liberal Democrat MP for Tiverton and Honiton Richard Foord, will both contend the new Honiton and Sidmouth constituency at the next general election.

In a packed cricket pavilion in Newton Poppleford on Thursday, February 15, the Question Time-style debate, hosted by the parish council, proved civilised and courteous, with one member of the public saying the pair were both “jolly nice chaps” and the area would be lucky to have either as their next MP.

But the politicians did clash on some local and national issues raised in audience questions.

Asked about the current state of the country, Mr Jupp said: “It is very difficult at the moment.

“We know that there are several issues… that have not gone in the right direction. Not all of that is down to government.

“We are working really, really hard to solve these problems within the confines of what we can do as government.

“Whether it’s getting a GP appointment or getting an NHS dentist, we know at the moment it’s impossible to get an NHS dentist in this part of East Devon and that’s why we’ve announced a plan in the last week to try and incentivise NHS dentists back into the profession.

“I want to see the fruit of that labour. We are doing as much as we can and working really, really hard, but some of these problems are not of our own making.”

Sidmouth

MP Simon Jupp during the debate.
Photo: LDRS/Alfie Richardson.

In response, Mr Foord laid the blame at the feet of former prime minister Liz Truss.

He said: “I’m afraid that some of the very hard work that was put in by Liz Truss in her very short premiership has damaged this country and our economy.

“We saw interest rates shoot up and that has meant mortgage rates have gone through the roof.

“I’d been in parliament for all of four months when Liz Truss stood up at the despatch box and got her chancellor Kwasi Kwarteng to list off what her government was going to do.

“It was obvious to me, sitting on the opposition benches, that what they were prescribing for the rest of us was rotten, completely rotten. The idea of scrapping the 45p rate of income tax, for example, was only going to serve the privileged few and was going to do nothing for public services in this country.

“And we’re seeing some of these terrible, tragic decisions playing out in our locality. I think about in my own constituency, Seaton Hospital, which is threatened by having a whole wing ripped away from it, potentially sold off and demolished for housing.

“These are the sorts of decisions that we’ll never sort out by writing a few letters locally. We need a competent government in Westminster addressing these problems nationally.”

Sidmouth

MP Richard Foord during the debate.
Photo: LDRS/Alfie Richardson.

Another series of questions put to the duo were centred around the NHS.

Mr Jupp spoke about how he believed the NHS Devon ICB (integrated care board) needed overhauling, and highlighted his work in calling for more local hospice funding and menopause care.

He said: “I think people are right to be angry and disappointed with health services in parts of the country, including around here.

“We are, of course, trying to tackle the problems. We’ve got the only Nightingale hospital in the country still operating and bringing down waiting lists.

“It’s no good blaming Westminster for everything when it comes to the NHS. An awful lot of our services are commissioned locally, and I’m afraid our ICB, as it stands, does not have my confidence.

“I think that we need an overhaul of our ICB because it’s in special measures and it’s not working.

“I think that it’s very easy for politicians to say this, that and the other. But if we can take the politics out of it, we can take the heat out of it and put patients first.”

Mr Foord criticised this approach, saying NHS problems should be sorted out by the government at a national level.

He said: “Cross-party consensus is what governments on the rack tend to plead for. When the government is on the ropes, they say, come on, come and share our pain.

“This government deserves to be criticised. This government is making decisions… that are detrimental to the health service and are detrimental to the health of people in this country, in this county, and in this community.

“I frequently hear many, many Conservative MPs and government ministers laying the same charge: the responsibility lies with the local, it lies with that local authority, with that district council, with that ICB.

“And yet when you actually take on a bird’s-eye view, you find that they’re all at it. You find that all 39 ICBs are apparently failing, or perhaps all of the local authorities. It’s their responsibility.

“The reality is that the government is on the hook for this and we need, I’m afraid, big serious change to sort things out.”

Sewage dumping was also raised at the debate. Mr Foord called for the government to do more on the issue, while Mr Jupp spoke about what he was doing in the local area to tackle sewage-related problems.

Mr Foord said: “What we have seen is companies that have been very happy to use this very basic utility as a cash cow and to extract very large dividends for shareholders without the concomitant investment in sewage infrastructure.

“I think we do have to go back to good regulation by government, because what we have seen is a regulator in Ofwat that has no teeth, and it is government’s responsibility to give the regulator proper powers as well as duties.

“What we have seen in recent years, in fact since 2008, is that water companies have been able to monitor the sewage themselves and that for me is a nonsense.

“You need a regulator to monitor sewage discharges and that’s why I introduced the Water Quality Monitoring Bill in parliament in January and I’m pleased that since then the government has, I think, caved under pressure… to talk about moving that responsibility for water quality monitoring away from water companies and to put it in the hands of the regulator.”

Mr Jupp branded the regions’ water and sewage provider as “shameful” and decried what he saw as its “environmental vandalism”.

He said: “South West Water have historically underinvested in our area, and we’re seeing the fruits of that failure.

“We saw it in Exmouth at the start of January. We’re seeing it this week again in Exmouth with the same pipe bursting. It is totally and utterly unacceptable.

“Now, what has the government done? For the first time ever, we have 100 per cent monitoring of storm overflows. Those are the sewage pipes that have been there for decades.

“So we know the scale of the problem. It lifts the lid on the scale of underinvestment that we are seeing.

“I live in Sidmouth, a stone’s throw from the beach, I care about this. I want them to clean up their act and our water.

“We have got investment coming. I want it more quickly, I want to see thorough plans delivered.

“South West Water must pay for their failure and there is an awful lot more they need to do.”

The new Honiton and Sidmouth constituency will include parts of both MPs’ old seats.

Both also currently have small majorities. Simon Jupp took East Devon for the Tories by 6,708 votes in the 2019 general election, and Richard Foord won a by-election in Tiverton and Honiton for the Lib Dems in 2022 with a majority of 6,144.

What could make this race even tighter is that Claire Wright, who was hot on Mr Jupp’s heels when she gathered over 40 per cent of the vote in East Devon as an independent in 2019, has endorsed Mr Foord’s campaign.

A general election must be called by the prime minister at some point this year.

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