Sir Vince Cable visits Harrogate to kick-start election campaigning
The leader of the Liberal Democrats said he has "every expectation of making significant gains" in May's local council elections, as he visited HarrogateÂ to kick-start campaigning on Thursday.
Sir Vince Cable spoke of party-wide optimism to increase seats, and said candidates in the Harrogate district are feeling positive for the months ahead.
He said: “I’ve met our candidates, they’re optimistic and very positive. They’re getting a very good reception on the doorstep, and there is every expectation of making significant gains here, which would be really welcome - and it’s a spirit that I am getting across the country.”
Sir Vince visited the site on Beckwith Head Road where building work has been put on hold for a new Â£16 million mental health facility, due to a forecasted deficit of more than Â£14 million in local health services.
He then met with some of the town’s business owners to discuss some of their trading challenges, before meeting with representatives of the Community Land Trust to talk about the difficulties of getting on the housing ladder.
Visiting the planned site for the new mental health facility, Sir Vince said: "I'm here because this was supposed to be the site of a mental health facility which had been promised by the NHS, but has never appeared.
“Local Lib Dems in Harrogate have launched a very popular petition on the lack of facilities - both health and mental health service facilities, and the lack of any kind of NHS dentistry.
"It's something people feel very strongly about in the town, and it reflects the general underfunding of the NHS - which is why as a party we are campaigning for a penny-in-the-pound on income tax to raise the necessary money to make sure that the health service functions properly."
Populated with independent businesses, it was a natural choice for Sir Vince to visit Commercial Street next. There, he went into Crown Jewellers to speak to Sue and Stephen Kramer, who have been running the business for almost 18 years.
Speaking before his visit to the shop, Sir Vince said: "I've been to Harrogate many times, I grew up in York, and coming across to Harrogate when I was a child was part of my experience.
"I've seen it change over decades, and I know there is a lot of pressure now on high streets - some of it of course is new technology and the effect this is having on the high street. Some of it is simply weak economic conditions, and all the uncertainty around Brexit is one of the factors that is feeding into general business uncertainty and lack of spending, and pressure on the shops."
Sir Vince also talked about meeting hidden needs in Yorkshire, and tackling pockets of rural deprivation and poverty underlying more affluent parts of the region, including Harrogate.
He said: “This is a long-standing problem. I grew up in York down the road, which looks from the outside prosperous, but there are some very, very poor people. There always has been, but these days it's particularly acute because of the way the economy has stagnated relatively since the banking crisis.
"The cuts that this government are now making on benefits are very severe, hitting disabled people particularly. It is very harsh. And certainly the Lib Dems want to tackle some of the worst extremes of poverty, particularly those that have been affected by things like Universal Credit."
Only last month the 'Advertiser reported on the launch of a district-wide Local Fund which aims to address hidden needs in our communities, and the findings of a ground-breaking report.were announced - these included the statistics that in the district there are more than 2,000 children living in poverty, and that one in four neighbourhoods are within the most deprived 25 per cent in England.
Sir Vince said: "I think one of the problems is there is a lot of low pay in agriculture and in the service sector, and people are struggling on basic wage - partly because of lack of affordability of housing, and partly because living standards have been squeezed.
"Particularly with the heavy fall, the devaluation of the currency two years ago after the Brexit referendum, that has increased prices, and it's squeezed people's living standards. So people are already struggling to make ends meet, and are now in a much worse position."
The cost of housing in Harrogate and the difficulties of getting on the property ladder, were also a big talking point during the leader's visit.
He said: "As I understand it, the pressure in Harrogate is particularly acute, because this is a combination of very high house prices - I was told the average price now is around Â£300,000 - combined with quite low pay.
"There are a lot of people in service employment on Â£20,000 a year, and of course it's just absolutely nowhere near what you need to get a mortgage even if both partners are working.
"So I think what the Lib Dems on the council are very anxious to do is to get the council building affordable homes. They should be able to do that, the council should have the powers to borrow to build, and have its own housing company. We're seeing experiments like that in other parts of the country."
On the subject of councils raising their council tax, he said: "The way that the council tax system operates, is it's hard with people on low incomes because it's quite regressive in income terms.
"The council tax system needs reforming at the moment. It's the only way councils have of bringing in extra revenue, they haven't got a regular freedom around rates. So it is an unpopular step."
Sir Vince said he is confident about the party's campaigning strategy for the elections in May.
He said: "The Lib Dems have always believed in local government, and letting local people make local choices. We have a good track record in local government, and I think we will come back in Harrogate on that basis.
"But we can't disregard the fact that the country is going through a big crisis around the Brexit issue, and Harrogate is of course one of the remain areas. It is massively going to transform people's lives, I fear for the worse, and my party is the only party that's committed to remain, and giving people a vote on the final deal. And we will continue to make that case even in the context of a local election."