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The Race For The Bath Constituency: An interview with independent candidate Colin Blackburn

This is part of an election series with all of Bath’s parliamentary candidates – all interviews will be posted on our website over the next week. Some answers have been edited for legible clarity.   

                                                                                                                                        

   Interviewer: Elliot Rose (in bold) Friday 14th June 2024

  Interviewee: Colin Blackburn, independent MP Candidate for the Bath Constituency

So firstly, why would you like to stand as an MP and why the Bath constituency in particular?

Well, I’m a resident of Bath. I started work in Bath over 40 years ago, so I believe over that period of time, I’ve got to know the Community and the Community has evolved and it continues to evolve. As a city, we offer many, many different things and we’re a very diverse community. I am a parent. I’ve got two children at local schools. I have been an active local councillor and elected three times to represent the ward of Westmoreland in in the Act of the part of the Oldfield Park area of the city. 

I’ve always been about independent party politics I find is a difficult thing in local governance, whilst it should be about looking at the best solutions for residents and our community, that often gets clouded a bit by party stuff. My fellow Independent Westmoreland Councillor June Player has been elected for over 12 years, and I sort of came along to support her. We believe we’ve been re-elected because our community has found that they can work with us. They can trust us to express their opinions and views. 

Why do I want to put myself forward for the Member of Parliament opportunity and seat for representing Bath? I wouldn’t represent anywhere else. I do have a difficulty with the thought of people being parachuted in someplace that they are not known, because if you’re gonna represent a community, it’d be good to be known already. Secondly, I’ve had many, many conversations with residents, friends, colleagues, expressing dissatisfaction with the national picture. Things have been difficult for a long period of time, and that’s changing the face of British politics, and party politics especially is becoming difficult in terms of its sound bites, its broken promises and everything else. recent surveys have shown that the trust in politicians has pretty well disintegrated and even on a local level that’s shown on recent Vox Poll reports with 45%.

As an independent, I’m here to represent people. I’m not here with predetermined policies. When I see Plaid Cymry or others putting manifestos together it seems strange because they’re never gonna govern the country, what they should be looking at is projecting what they believe in and what’s right for their communities. But, sometimes can we really determine that until such time that situations present themselves? Bath is a very different place than central Birmingham or rural North Yorkshire. An MP should be a constituency MP first in my mind, and that is what residents are expecting as well. They want genuine representation and taking that to a national level, I believe. My experience as a local councillor, scrutinising, analysing, calling in decisions, will help this city be represented better. That’s why I’m standing.

Would you say therefore that our current political system is obsessed with party politics?

It has been for a very long time, but I think there are signs this is now breaking. I think we can see the massive factions in the current government and how that is breaking apart because of many, many things that they’ve done and how they’ve acted. Ultimately people were approaching me because they felt their voice was not being represented by party politics. They wanted not only a local voice, but a voice that would not promise things that don’t get delivered, nor represent views that they can’t support and. Electing an independent is a strong opportunity to get that local voice heard on a national stage.

You have been a councillor here in Bath since 2015. Based on your experience, what do you think are the most critical issues facing Bath?

Well, good question. Bath is an evolving city, I was showing somebody a photograph I have on my computer from this area in 1986, and I started working in 1984, that showed the whole Riverside, which you’re possibly only familiar with as the new developments down there, but it showed the original industrial facilities that we had, the stockyard, pit and the crane (…) that has changed immeasurably 40 years. That’s all gone. That industrial heart has been replaced. We had MOD facilities. We had three of those sites across the city that have now evolved and become residential. That impacts the availability of employment space and employment opportunities. So, the City will as most do constantly evolve. And I the challenges are to get it right and to get the local plan right.

You are part of a university that has evolved incredibly in 50-plus years, and we’ve seen the change in Bath Spa in in 20-plus years. Evolution doesn’t stand still, and I think a resident wants to be part of understanding how that growth’s going to take place.

Wessex Water announced that they’re seeking a price rise of 50%, despite a recorded 41, 000 sewage spills in 2023. How can we ensure that Bath residents have access to clean and unreasonably priced water?

That is an extremely big picture, Elliot, and I appreciate your take and balance of your question. But I’ve tried to look into this, I’ve had meetings with Wessex Water to understand how the picture affects what they can deliver, and this goes right back. You know we have Victorian sewage systems which the Government designed many, many, many years ago, that meant a single pipe carried waste water, sewage water, but also more importantly, runoff and rainwater, which is the water that comes down onto your gutter. Your roof is different than the water that you flush through your toilet and rinse down your sink or from your shower. 

But they all go into a single supply pipe. Now, that fundamentally is the root of the problem that has been identified for a very long time, but we have a regulator called Ofwat, which controls many of the mechanisms available to the water boards to deliver. I’m as keen as anybody to make sure that we’ve got the best facilities available, drinking water is of a very high standard and our bills are actually 30% cheaper today than they were 15 years ago. The problem with reducing the price is that any additional money would be collected and then invested in solving some of the problems. Those prices were set by the regulator. Now, Wessex Water, in the case of this question, they’re asking for this. But it’s not them that set it but ultimately Ofwat. It’s a big, complex picture and I think you know; my responsibility is to make sure that our community understand the impacts none of us want to pay excessive bills. We want the balance between good quality water and low prices. It is trying to make sure that we are part of that decision-making process and some of that decision-making process comes from the central government or via a regulator. So, it’s getting the balance right.

Students are pessimistic about the government’s ability to deal with the climate crisis. Do you think there are any environmental issues here that need addressing in the Bath area, and if so how would you address these? 

Well, I think you’ll find that local and broader environmental issues often go hand in glove. The environment doesn’t stop at the borders of the city. As a city, our impacts are different than down the road in in peace down Saint John or in Midsummer Norton. They are smaller communities; they are more rural communities surrounded by different levels of topography. We’ve got a city built on 7 hillsides. That in itself creates a challenging environment. We were recognised by the EU as the first city to actually introduce a clean air zone. That has had a positive impact, but I think we can do better. You’re hearing different noises on a national level about the exclusions of diesel and petrol cars. Driving that change is something that must be national. I’m pleased to say that when I look around Bath, our percentage of electric cars is probably more than I see in other cities. But, is that a reflection that some of the people in this city can afford them rather than other areas with high levels of poverty; this is a really difficult, complex issue. I don’t think you know, but we have a local authority that works very hard to deliver on fighting the ecological climate emergency, from tree planting, looking at things like LTM’s and opportunities to encourage people, to walk, cycle, etcetera.

You’ve just mentioned that there is wealth inequality in different areas of the city, is that a priority issue for you? Would you emphasise remedying inequality in Bath were you to be elected?

Absolutely. You know, I was really disappointed when reading Labour’s pledges that they’ve made in their manifesto, where they’ve had the opportunity through child support to potentially take many children out of the trap of poverty and they’re not proposing it. As a local MP, I’d absolutely be championing and pushing them to say you’ve gotta take these steps. Are things like breakfast clubs or provided breakfast that effective, or is it a broad political brush stroke? Because it’s not means tested. There are people in receipt of free school meals, why aren’t they the ones to benefit from a targeted breakfast? Because that’s the 20% who need it in this city. Why would we feed the 100%? That is a national picture, and you know it’s really important that the Bath MP represents that part of our community, they need our support.

Lots of issues that Bath voters tend to care about do take place in ‘a national picture’, controlled very much by national political parties. If you were to be elected as an independent MP, how can you ensure that you’ll be able to influence and shape policies in these areas that your voters may care about?

Well, as a seasoned and proven independent, I’m known for scrutinising decisions on a local level. I’m known for getting under the surface and engaging. As you know, this City is not represented at the moment by a ruling party. We voted in an MP at the last election who became one of just 11. So, from that point of view, my ability to be non-political and engage cross-party might actually create reasonable debate and discussion about our issues and views, which are often different than those in say, rural Yorkshire. If I were an MP for one of those locations locked into a party, do you think I could express those view local views as well? I don’t think so. I think I can do it better as an independent to engage in the committee rooms in Westminster and actually get our views heard.

First bus again increased the price of bus fares in Bath last year, and this is actually the primary form of transport for students to get up to campus. How can we get public transport to be affordable, not just for students, but also for more permanent residents here in Bath?

The bus situation is complex and there are two parts to that. Obviously, you’re looking at this issue as a student and the needs of that transportation up onto campus, just outside of the immediate city catchment and it’s that movement of people is really important. Control of that and control of the cost of that is really important because it affects you, but there’s also an awful lot of people that are residents of the city that need to move around the city and our bus provision needs improving, that at the moment is part of a regional picture. There is national money via our West of England combined authority, and the ‘Wecker’ Mayor is ultimately involved in that decision-making process with the local authority. Their relationship is not good at the moment. I feel that our local MP should be able to say that we need to be sitting in a room and planning this better, showing people that we can give them the transport options they need, and managing that cost to make it affordable.

Staying on transport, we’ve brought in resident parking permits into the local area and that’s brought in a lot of controversy. Why has this policy been introduced into the local area, and were you a component in that policy being implemented?

The RPZ (Residence Parking Zones) has come through into both Oldfield Park and Westmoreland Ward. Ultimately, the current local administration has been instigating, June Player and I have constantly canvassed residents, and these are not only the retired pensioner homeowners in Oldfield Park or Westmoreland, but they also include our student population. 

The main practical reason was to cut down on those people, the walk and park striders. You may have heard that term. People would use this area as a car park and walk in instead of using public transport. They’d drive to a certain area and do that. With multiple cars, that puts pressure on a location. If you take a road just for example, West Avenue was built 120 years ago. No cars were around then. It’s got 110 properties on it and more than forty of those properties are houses of multiple occupancy. Now if you put previously maybe two adults in 110 houses. That’s 220 adults, and now with so many houses of multiple occupancy, that brings X number of cars to the street. That puts incredible pressure on those local services and facilities and in this case, spaces. So, the proposal to make things more even and fair to limit the number of vehicles in that zone to two vehicles per property seemed a very fair and sensible way to manage that. 

Officers from our SU have announced the state of private student housing as being ‘deplorable’, with many students describing their houses as mould infested and poorly insulated. What can we do to ensure that our landlords here in Bath can provide adequate living conditions for their tenants?

That’s an interesting question because I heard a lot more of that ten years ago than I do now. You know the local authority has a registration scheme and a standards level that local landlords or even absent landlords need to meet. Now the provision of housing when you take a 120-year-old Victorian terraced house that was never fitted with gas central heating, it’s evolved as a property and has its issues. But it’s not just an effect on the student population, it’s an effect on anybody in an HMO, Bear in mind that there are people who start their professional lives and go into a professional house share, but also other residents who experience both our weather the way we are and properties are deemed to be insulated. You know, we’ve got a city with lots of great listed buildings that bring its own challenges. We can’t wrap them all in nice insulation and hope that solves it. Sometimes they’re isolated cases and I genuinely believe that in Westmoreland we’ve worked hard with both local providers and with students to address issues as they become known to us.  Lastly,  I don’t actually see it as being ‘deplorable’. I mean, I genuinely don’t hear that and I was quite surprised by your question because the student community partnership and others have all worked very hard to raise standards and you know it’s difficult as I said.

Also on the question of housing, do you think there’s a shortage of a housing here in Bath, and if so, what steps do you take to address this?

Housing, wow. Again another big question. You know we as a city have been meeting all our housing targets. And our provision to build according to the national level targets has come from things like the regeneration of the Riverside, which is very much in my community and ward. The number of designated properties that need to be built meet those targets and the 3 MOD sites at Fox Hill and Upper Lansdown and on the Warminster Road again have added housing stock. I think our big issue as a city is affordability and you know, understanding social housing needs. I have a meeting next week with our local social housing provider, because it’s a big issue and I want to help this community and city evolve and make sure we’re providing the best we can across that piece.

Since the cost-of-living crisis struck maintenance loans haven’t risen. According to the Trussell Trust, food bank usage has arisen by a quarter since 2919. What can be done to actually make a day-to-day life more affordable for everyone in Bath?

In terms of affordability there’s certain parts of bath where affordability does not impact people, but there’s a huge part of Bath in which the residents of the City that have been impacted negatively. I think this is actually such a big question, you can’t click your fingers and you know, say, OK, you don’t pay tax. You can. If you can’t afford to, we’ll. We’ll provide your kids breakfast, because that will help you. There are many things and many mechanisms that should be being fought, discussed and argued for that will support the residents of Bath. As you know, there are many mechanisms that are affecting us, be that transport costs, energy costs, food costs, you know the situation for our local MP’s is to just stand up, support and fight for the best results for local residents.

You’ve been a councillor here for many years. So, why do you now want to run for a national leadership role?

Yeah, good question. Why? I’ve been approached by many people frustrated with the current landscape of party politics as I myself wouldn’t have had anybody to vote for. As an individual I do not align myself to any of those political parties. I’m uncomfortable with the whole ping pong and promise and break promise with politics that we’ve fallen into. Many people in this city didn’t feel they had a choice and my reason to stand was to give people that choice, and also show people that an independent is actually a better voice for them locally than following party politics and history. 

Why on a national scale? You know that I know this City. I know the people here. I want to be able to engage with them, take their thoughts, concerns, the changing landscape of the city and represent it well. 

Comparing the role of being a councillor to an MP, do you feel you’ll have more influence on the community as an MP, or rather a different type of influence?

It would absolutely be a different type of influence because naturally, there are different levels of the democratic process. You know, Bath itself has often been seen as having a democratic deficit because we don’t have a parish or a town council, so we miss a layer. But that doesn’t mean that the local MP shouldn’t be actively involved in encouraging the local authority to understand, work and deliver for the local residents. The current situation of MPs from a national political party, who, say, might seem to want to leave them to it, and we see that the leaving them to it scenario means that ‘Wecker’ and they are not talking, we’re not planning our transport, we’re not resolving it. It means that absolutely I can be involved locally, but I can also take that to the national stage.

As of the 14th of June, you haven’t released a manifesto. Is this something you are planning to do or not?

Elliot, I don’t believe in manifestos when you’re not gonna be governing, it’s pointless telling people this is what I’m gonna give you when that’s not gonna be the case. With all due respect to some of these small parties, Plaid Cymru coming out with theirs or the Greens coming out with theirs, they’re never gonna be leading this country. What I believe we should be doing in our politics is understanding our individual communities and supporting those, as well as aligning with things that work nationally as well as supporting what our needs are in this local city.  You know, we have a very different dynamic than other areas and aligning with a party that takes you off on national situations and national policies that have no reflection or just a part reflection on local benefits is something that, you know, I personally don’t believe it. And I think I think an independent can do a better job.

I guess a manifesto can also offers ways to understand a politician’s values and what they would want to do or not do in power. What kind of alternative strategies are you gonna use to let people know this, or what values you might stand for?

Elliot, I appreciate that desire to understand who I am, but that’s just old party politics. Some of us have to break that, and I’ve been doing that for nine years and representing people here, the residents who voted me into Westmoreland. They have not said to me ‘what are you going to do about this?’ because I’ve said, ‘what would you like for me to do about this?’ That that’s the approach. It’s about listening to the community. There are times when actually even times when June Player and I have represented two sides of an opinion on the same thing. Some people would say that’s counterproductive, but actually the community was split, and this is the situation that sometimes needs to happen. I think forcing people to say put your mark to this colour because this is the way it is has not served us very well. So, I’d like you to think maybe a little bit differently and say instead of ‘I need to know what you stand for’, say, ‘You’re going to stand for me and I’ll be able to express my opinion now, that opinion might not be the majority opinion. It might not be the opinion you take forward to fight and support for, but at least I feel heard.

I’ll then move on to our final question. Lots of students feel disenfranchised by our current political system. What would you say to encourage students to actually go to the polls on the 4th July?

Well, there’s two parts to the answer for me, Elliot. Firstly, there is nothing sadder than people being disillusioned of partaking in having a voice in in their lives and their community. You know, having a vote is a really important thing and I think that’s why I’m standing because lots of people didn’t feel they had a vote or a choice. And I’d like to think that there are some great students who are coming out, thinking I can do this and represent people. 

You’ll be reading this and thinking ‘do I believe in him or do I not?’ That’s your choice. Absolutely. You know, I’d really like to appeal to the student community, which is why I’m bothering to come up on campus, to want to come and talk to everybody, cause I genuinely feel I can give them a choice and hopefully make them see their involvement in the governance of our country doesn’t have to be related to some of the sound bites and political colours. 

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