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Local issues such as sewage are a problem for ‘Blue Wall’ Tories in 2024

You can smell the sewage in Cranleigh.

The odour wafts out of a Thames Water treatment works in the otherwise pleasant Surrey village, a few miles southeast of Guildford. It becomes so bad in summer that people are unable to use their gardens.

Residents say the release of sewage into a local river has even led to the cancellation of a local angling competition because there no were fish.

It’s nasty, but for Sir Ed Davey this could be electoral gold. Cranleigh is in the heart of “Blue Wall” territory where the Liberal Democrat leader believes his party can challenge the Tories in next year’s general election by listening to exactly these kind of local concerns.

“We’ve been in touch with people we have been listening to people, hearing their concerns and then working on them,” he tells i. “Whether it’s NHS whether it’s cost of living, whether its things like sewage, and I don’t see the other parties doing that. We put sewage into the political debate.”

Planning is another such issue. Local Lib Dem councillors believe the situation in Cranleigh has worsened due to inappropriate property developments which are not built for the local infrastructure. They said this was a classic example of large houses being built in places of developers’ choosing – without local community involvement.

This area would be a particular prize for Sir Ed because it is part of the newly created constituency of Godalming and Ash that chancellor Jeremy Hunt will fight next year. It is a key Blue Wall target seat for the Lib Dems.

Sir Ed thinks his candidates can triumph in places like this because people want a “local champion” in their MP and he believes other parties are too focused on Westminster chatter to listen to them.

Ed Cavey, leader of the Liberal Democrats meets activists and the local candidate Paul Fellows, on a visit to the site of a proposed Gas and oil drill site in Dunsfold, Surrey. 25/5/23. Photo Tom Pilston
Ed Cavey, leader of the Liberal Democrats, told i that his party wants to campaign on local issues (Photo: Tom Pilston)

Pressing the point home, Sir Ed posed for a picture at the sewage works before throwing a Home Counties-appropriate Barbour jacket over his suit and heading to another photo-op at a proposed oil drilling site in farmland, where local campaigners are fighting against the plan.

Labour and, in particular, the Lib Dems benefitted from a collapse in the Tory vote in the recent local elections. It is no secret that the two parties could end up having to work together if Sir Keir Starmer is short of a majority in the general election.

Neither leader has ruled out doing so but it is not something Sir Ed wants to talk about. He bats away questions about whether he was concerned that a radical policy from Labour could spook Tory voters consider switching to the Lib Dems, because they’re wary of a left wing coalition.

“We’re focused on the Liberal Democrats campaigns and policies because ultimately, we’re asking people to vote for a Liberal Democrat MP,” he says.

“Yes, we are making it clear we are anti-Conservative and we want to get rid of the Tory MPs but we are also saying if you vote for a local champion they will stand up for you whether it’s on things like this oil drilling, to protect your environment, whether it’s things like sewage, whether it’s the health service.

“A lot of people – and this is often not remembered in the Westminster bubble – do want to vote for a local MP, not just a label. So that’s what we’re going to focus on. And other parties will decide what they want to do.”

But it is well known that people vote differently at local level to national level, so can his party really translate its recent success into a general election and avoid a repeat of 2019 when they went backwards?

“Really when you think about local issues, like the NHS and sewage, they are national issues too so it does translate,” a party source said. “And in 2019, there were so many seats we competed in but just missed out on, this time we’ll be taking a much more focused approach.”

Sir Ed argues that, far from following Labour into a possible coalition government, the Lib Dems have been leading the way on policy.

“We were the first passage tax on the oil and gas companies and after we first called for it, Labour copied us. We have seen that time and time again where we have great ideas and people copy them. That’s fine by me because it means we change policy, but we’re leading the debate. We’re not following others.”

Sir Ed was unwilling to make a commitment on net migration figures, which have reached record high, but he says changing salary thresholds for overseas jobs to avoid businesses employing cheaper migrant labour should be “looked at”.

In particular, he wants higher salaries for care workers to make the job more attractive to UK workers.

“What the Conservatives are doing is creating lots of visas as we’ve seen in the figures. I am not going to say I am against people coming from overseas to help in our hospitals and care homes,” he says.

“I’m not one of these people who in any way doesn’t want to welcome people like that, they are helping us out. But what I’m saying is, we need to value caring properly and more people who are already living in this country would go and work in our care homes.”

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