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Kent general election: The issues facing the first MP for the newly formed Weald of Kent

The new Weald of Kent constituency has been created to reflect the county’s growing population.

Always assumed to be the safest Conservative prospect in Kent on July 4, Simon Finlay met with some residents to discover their concerns and which way they’re likely to vote…

Ed and Gemma Lovejoy at Hope Farm near Wittersham
Ed and Gemma Lovejoy at Hope Farm near Wittersham

Gemma and Ed Lovejoy are sitting at the kitchen table over tea, discussing their thoughts ahead of the general election.

It’s a lively affair and clearly this is a couple who have opinions and are unafraid to express them.

Both in their 40s with three daughters, the Lovejoys are as true blue as they come, classic farming folk who embody British Conservative values. They work hard and are resourceful and resilient.

These days, only 40% of Hope Farm’s income comes from farming - mostly the 1,400 sheep on 900 acres, much of which is rented. Then there is the 35% which is derived from their diversification projects such as butchery, selling hay, a campsite and livery.

Their land rotation policy of grazing one year and cutting grass the next, without the use of fertilisers, is exactly the type of farming the last government has been keen to champion.

It allows the Lovejoys to claim on the post-Brexit Special Farming Incentive scheme, which encourages among other things, rewilding, hedgerow protection and soil sampling. The subsidies make up the remaining (but absolutely crucial) 25% of their income.

In April, on the farm’s Lambing Day, the Conservative parliamentary candidate for the new Weald of Kent constituency, Katie Lam, was among the visitors.

So impressed was she by the Lovejoys’ operation that Ms Lam invited the Secretary of State for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the Rt Hon Steve Barclay, to drop by a couple of days later.

The meeting was due to last 20 minutes. Mr Barclay stayed for an hour.

The visitors’ team shot a slick video which has been posted on Facebook to trumpet their commitment to British farmers.

Given the Lovejoys’ voting record, the presence of an aspiring MP and a minister perched at the top of government, one might assume they would be nailed on Tory voters on July 4.

Not this time. They could, at best, be described as undecided.

Lambing time on a farm
Lambing time on a farm

“As a female, knowing the struggle there was to get women the vote, you have to go out and vote, even if it is to spoil the ballot paper. That’s what I might well be doing,” she says.

Ed says he is undecided but by his general “disillusionment” at the political scene, it does not sound as though Ms Lam will be receiving his vote, either.

Later, out in the field feeding sheep, Ed observes: “It's a bit ironic that farmers seem to do better under Labour governments than the Conservative ones. I don’t know why.”

A member of his immediate family is veering towards Reform UK, he confides.

Top of Gemma’s list is the need for free bus passes for children attending rural schools. The cost is so prohibitive, locals use their cars instead.

“So much for protecting the environment,” she exclaims.

Since the Lovejoys had 116 sheep and a quad bike stolen, they feel rural crime should be a major priority. They did not feel that Kent Police’s response (crime reference numbers) was adequate or proportionate.

Kent’s rampant house building and the lack of roads and services to support it, potholes and privately owned sewage companies dumping raw waste into the rivers are constant bugbears for the Lovejoys.

In fairness, they are not alone - these are themes which come up time and again across the new constituency.

Kent MPs Damian Green and Helen Grant have seen major changes to their old constituencies
Kent MPs Damian Green and Helen Grant have seen major changes to their old constituencies

Carved from other MPs’ patches - Ashford, Folkestone and Hythe, Faversham and Mid Kent and the now defunct Maidstone and the Weald - it should be, on paper, one of the safest Conservative prospects in the land, despite the party’s current desperate polling deficits.

The new constituency has just over 70,000 possible electors, largely from villages such as Charing, Chilham, Staplehurst, Headcorn, Marden and Biddenden.

The biggest “town” is Tenterden, with a little over 8,000 people, many of whom move there in retirement from other parts of Kent or elsewhere.

Pollsters, who profile the Weald of Kent as “strong right”, predict an 80% chance of a Tory win.

Yet some traditional Conservative voters, like the Lovejoys, appear to be turning their backs on the party, disappointed and disheartened by the state of the country and their county.

The word “disillusioned” is used often when the Conservative name is mentioned.

And it perhaps points to the hurdles faced by Ms Lam in getting the electorate out and, if she does, for them not to vote for Reform UK.

For years, in Collier Street, near Marden, Sean Randell has been fighting a war on speeding motorists on the B2162 outside his comfortable cottage with its well-tended vegetable patch.

Sean Randell of Collier Street
Sean Randell of Collier Street

When he was involved in Speedwatch and LorryWatch, he tried in vain to alert the authorities - principally Kent County Council and the police - to drivers racing by at up to 68mph in the 30mph zone.

He has all but given up, beaten down by the relentless to-ing and fro-ing with officialdom that produced neither the action nor the peace he, his partner and their neighbours crave.

Sean is a Conservative voter. So, what about July 4?

“Probably not. I am just too disillusioned. The Tories are just out of touch with the grass roots,” he says wearily.

The 56-year-old is flirting with the notion of Reform UK but more as a protest than an endorsement.

It’s not just the speeding vehicles, whose drivers pay no heed to the limits, but “endless” house building, antisocial behaviour, the risk of flooding, a GP shortage and a lack of NHS dentistry that get his goat.

On a back road into Egerton, cars are slaloming their way along the pothole-pitted lanes.

Out for a walk, is Phil, a retired police officer in his early 60s who moved to Kent a decade ago.

He is a lifelong Conservative voter. Will he be going blue again this general election?

“No chance, mate,” he says, “The Conservatives are an embarrassment. But if I did bother, which I probably won’t, I’d vote for Reform.

“Look at the state of the roads - potholes everywhere or closed for repairs that never seem to happen. Look at the house building everywhere, piling cars on the roads and ruining the countryside.

“Look at the NHS. Look at that silly Rwanda scheme. If Labour think they have the answers, they’re only kidding themselves.”

According to Census data, the Weald of Kent voter is older but better off than the rest of the south east, owns a house worth way more than the national average and makes up a greater proportion of the ABC1 demographic.

For instance, the average home there is worth £445,000 compared to £313,000 nationally.

The High Street in Cranbrook
The High Street in Cranbrook

But there is deprivation, even among superficially affluent types. Food handouts to homeowners are not uncommon. The cost of living squeeze has hit hard and money simply doesn’t stretch for people, especially older ones, as far as it once did.

In an ancient village church, there is a routine performed regularly. A vicar leaves bags of shopping under the altar, obscured by the drapes.

A church volunteer retrieves the plastic Tesco bags for life and delivers them to someone in need. This way, even the priest does not know which of the flock is in distress.

The vicar says that even prosperous communities have pockets of need, sometimes in surprising quarters. There is no single cause but high prices, debt, a squeeze on pensions, divorce and inflation are all aggravating factors.

The Trussell Trust, which helps coordinate food banks in the UK, has no registered outlets in the Weald of Kent but it is generally accepted that the growing need for handouts may be linked to state benefits not being pegged to upward inflation.

Yalding resident Oliver Kirk is in no doubt what his principal gripe is, the roads, sighing: “They’re atrocious. There is not a day that goes by without the roads being shut somewhere round here. Places like Wateringbury and Nettlestead are just a nightmare.

“The roads are falling apart but it is the infrastructure generally that is falling apart. We have new housing in Yalding which is putting extra pressure on roads and the local services.

“There are plans for more houses, but no social housing - just big ones for millionaires who drive their Chelsea tractors down lanes designed for the horse and cart.”

Oliver says he is currently “undecided” but, for the record, will not be voting for the Conservatives.

Raj Bisram, 68, is a well-known figure in his adopted town of Cranbrook. He can barely walk 20 yards before someone stops to say hello.

Thirteen years ago, television celebrity came calling for the soldier turned auctioneer from north London.

Mayor of Cranbroook, Raj Bisram, in Cranbrook
Mayor of Cranbroook, Raj Bisram, in Cranbrook

He spends much of his year touring the country working on programmes like Antiques Roadshow, dispensing valuations on sporting memorabilia with an easy charm and obvious likeability.

He is also the Honorary Mayor of Cranbrook, so he is in tune with local concerns about crime and antisocial behaviour.

To that end, Raj is holding a Mayor’s Day on August 17 in the town with a children’s party in the morning, cream teas in the afternoon and evening prize giveaway at the George Hotel.

In the bar of the hotel over a drink, he says: “This role is not political and I am not going to make any political statements.

“But I can say what I can see. I don’t think I have seen a police officer in the town in about 10 years. I am not saying they’re not here, just I haven’t seen them.

“The roads are in very poor repair - full of potholes everywhere. We seem to be building a lot of houses but not the infrastructure that’s needed to go alongside.

“And that’s what I hear. People tell me they want a nice town that is safe and more community-minded. That’s what I want, too. It’s what everybody wants, isn’t it?

“The new MP, whoever it is, should have local interests at their heart.”

The candidates are: John Howson (Lib Dem), Daniel Kersten (Reform UK), Katie Lam (Con), Lenny Rolles (Lab), and Kate Walder (Green).

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