CHESTER’S Conservative parliamentary candidate has assured Cestrians that the city hospital would not be closed on his watch.
Will Gallagher also pledged to ensure local schools receive sufficient funding and reiterated his support for anti-fracking campaigners in the city.
The Leader caught up with him and former Secretary of State for Transport, Chris Grayling, at the railway station before they hit the streets on a campaigning mission.
We asked the pair about three key issues in the city: a perceived threat to the local NHS and the Countess of Chester Hospital; budget cuts in schools under the Conservatives’ new education funding formula; and fracking. We also slipped in a question about fox-hunting.
In March, dozens of concerned parents and teachers held a demonstration in the city centre after it emerged the borough’s schools stood to lose millions.
Cheshire West and Chester Council’s Labour-led administration claimed the new formula would see local education funding slashed by £4.2 million by 2019-20, increasing to almost £6.4m in future years.
And just before Christmas, sitting Labour MP Chris Matheson – who is seeking re-election – started a campaign to save the city hospital after NHS documents revealed it could be merged with Wirral hospitals Arrowe Park and Clatterbridge on a new site.
Mr Gallagher and Mr Grayling accused Labour of scaremongering about the hospital threat, saying the NHS was safer now than it had been under Labour.
Mr Grayling said: “Nobody is planning to close the hospital. We are planning to spend £10 billion extra a year by 2021 on the NHS.
“The Labour Party say we will destroy the NHS but the truth is we will spend more money on it.”
And Chester-born Mr Gallagher added: “The number of contracts going to private companies is lower under this Government than it was under Blair and Brown.
“What people want is good quality healthcare in their hospitals and in their communities. I will be fighting for that but it will only happen if we have an economy that’s able to afford it.”
Turning to education, Mr Gallagher conceded local schools could lose out under the education funding formula and vowed to fight alongside campaigners to ensure their voices are heard in Parliament.
“We have 12 good or outstanding schools in this area now,” he said. “There are proposals that would see our funding reduced and that we need to deal with. I’m clear as a local MP that I would campaign hard to make sure the Government hears our message. As a Conservative MP talking to Conservative ministers I would be more effective in getting people’s voices heard and I would make sure our schools are protected.”
On the subject of fracking, the pair denied they held opposing views on whether the controversial form of gas extraction was a good idea. Mr Grayling had reportedly voiced strong pro-fracking opinions in the past, while this week Mr Gallagher told this newspaper he would back anti-fracking campaigners in the city.
“I don’t think there is the prospect of fracking in Chester as the companies have said they don’t think there’s a case for it here,” Mr Gallagher said.
Mr Grayling added: “I can’t remember saying very much about fracking over the years. I support fracking but no-one is proposing that in Chester.”
In light of Prime Minister Theresa May’s recent comments about bringing back fox-hunting, both men said they were “ambivalent” about the issue but were not against the activity. The country faced more pressing issues, such as Brexit, they said.
“We are at a crucial point and people are being asked ‘are you really going to put your future and prosperity in the hands of Jeremy Corbyn?’,” Mr Gallagher said.
“What people in Chester want to know as we go into Brexit is have we got an MP who can make a case for this city and make sure the Government hears our voice.”
Mr Grayling added: “This is more about the leadership of our country than we’ve known in a long time. There is such a stark contrast between what’s on offer: Theresa May who is a very strong leader or the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn who, as we see from today, is leading a party in a state of chaos.”