General Election: Chester candidates grilled by city's business leaders

Reporter:

Steve Creswell

WITH the general election just a week away, the four parliamentary candidates for Chester squared off at a hustings event last night.

Stephen Mosley (Conservative), Chris Matheson (Labour), Bob Thompson (Liberal Democrats) and Steve Ingram (UKIP) faced questions from the city's business leaders.

The event was organised by Chester Business Club and was held at the Crowne Plaza Hotel.

The first question centred on the importance of the new Northgate Development in the city – and whether it remained viable.

Mr Thompson said it was important for the city's regeneration but stressed he did not agree with the vision of a “cacophony” of “usual suspects” retail brands.

“Chester needs to become a new brand,” he said. “A little edge, a little quirky; it needs to be built on small businesses.”

Mr Mosley said it was a relief to see work under way, as the project had first been mooted in 1991.

The initial “big bang” approach had been wrong, he said, but now the council had it right by going for a “bite size chunk” approach by first building the theatre and library, followed by the bus station and then the retail element.

Mr Matheson said Northgate was important but added that it should not be allowed to crush small businesses. He also stressed the need for good access to the city centre from the new bus station at Gorse Stacks.

Mr Ingram said people had not been properly consulted on the plans, which he said included “huge monolithic, modern buildings that destroy the heritage of the city”.

He said more should be done to encourage small businesses and drive an evening economy to prevent Chester becoming a “ghost town” after 6pm.

The next question was on the issue of traffic congestion – and how to resolve it.

Mr Matheson said the problem lay in the fact that Chester only has two bridges into the city. He said he would push for improved bus services, safer cycling and less car use.

Mr Ingram said Chester faced a growing issue with traffic as 22,000 new properties were planned and the city faced becoming an urban sprawl like Manchester.

“We have to decide how much growth and how much development we want to see in the area,” he said.

Mr Mosley joked that unfortunately the Romans “had not thought of the motor car” when designing the city. He proposed building a third bridge, and a Western Relief Road, saying money would be available and describing it as a “real opportunity”.

Seeking to trump this idea, Mr Thompson suggested a new tram network would be the best solution to ease congestion, saying such a plan had worked wonders in numerous cities across Europe.

“We have to take a leap of faith,” he said.

The next question was around Chester's image and assets, and also asked if Dee House should be demolished to allow the amphitheatre to be excavated in full.

All agreed that the city was the “jewel in the crown” of the North West.

Mr Thompson said the amphitheatre must be excavated, and should be complemented by a new family-friendly museum.

Mr Ingram, however, said he was “not a fan” of demolishing historical buildings. “I don't want to see the continuous eradication of our own culture,” he said.

Next up was tourism – with candidates asked for their vision for tourism in the city and how it should be funded.

All four candidates agreed it was a priority, with Mr Ingram saying the council had wasted a lot of money that could have been used to boost tourism.

Mr Thompson said tourism had “waned because of a lack of investment”, with good hotels and guest houses being replaced by those of a lower quality.

Mr Mosley said the emphasis should be on luring people to the city for longer breaks, rather than the day-trippers. He said investment had taken place, giving examples of the Cathedral at Heights tour, the new Islands attraction at Chester Zoo, and the renovation of the historic Walls.

Mr Matheson said UK tourism was too focused on London, Oxford and Cambridge – and said the investment net must be widened.

The final question asked for candidates' views on the University of Chester and the issue of “studentification” and student housing in the city.

The four agreed the university was a huge asset to the city.

Mr Matheson said there needed to be a limit on the number of Houses of Multiple Occupancy (HMOs) in Chester, and Mr Ingram said that high volumes of students in some areas had created problems for residents.

Mr Thompson praised the university as a major employer, that was “innovative and growing”.

He also warned: “Don't paint students with one brush because that's very unfair. The vast majority work hard and play hard, and live according to society's norms.

Mr Mosley joked that he was “18 once”, and urged people to be tolerant of students and young people.

He said the university had moved from strength to strength in recent years and had great plans for the future, including the possibility of medical courses in partnership with the Countess of Chester Hospital.

He added: “Studentification is a problem but you have to accept that young people will be young people.”

The four went on to answer several questions on a national, party-political level, including their attitude to banks, education, unions and the prospect of another coalition government.

See full story in the Chester Leader

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