Car parks and loos head the agenda in Tories' safest seat

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With its generous date slices, bargain fruit scones and views over a majestic Georgian market place, the Cross View Tea Rooms is where the citizens of Richmond have long come for a cup of tea and an earnest chat about the issues of the day.

With its generous date slices, bargain fruit scones and views over a majestic Georgian market place, the Cross View Tea Rooms is where the citizens of Richmond have long come for a cup of tea and an earnest chat about the issues of the day.

But as waitresses bustled to and fro with toasted tea cakes and pots of tea yesterday, the small talk about buses and April showers had been replaced with more weighty discussion.

The conversation was of the twin perils that many believe threaten the future of this handsome north Yorkshire town, the gateway to the Dales - shrinking car parks and shut loos.

In between carrying a full English breakfast to table five, Diane Foster, the manageress at Cross View, said: "They want to close two car parks in a town where nobody can park already and they've closed the public toilets in the square opposite so we have to go elsewhere.

"I had a pregnant woman yesterday and an elderly lady this morning who just couldn't make it anywhere else. You can hardly turn them away, can you?

"But we can't be doing with cleaning our toilets three times a day just because they won't pay to keep the public ones open. People are quite angry."

Welcome to Election 2005 in the safest Conservative seat in Britain.

While the nation's political leaders were slugging it out over taxation and global poverty yesterday, it was the spectres of cross-legged sightseers desperate to answer the call of nature and the loss of 104 parking spaces that were raising the temperature in this most Tory of Tory heartlands.

In 2001, the Honourable Member for Richmond had a majority of 16,319 and a 37 per cent lead over his nearest rival. For every vote cast for the second-placed Labour candidate, there were three for his Tory rival.

The man lucky enough to enjoy such emphatic support is William Hague, professional Yorkshireman, some-time Conservative Party leader and recently declared millionaire on the back of his post-leadership career as an after-dinner speaker, biographer and company director.

Such is the true blue nature of Mr Hague's sprawling Richmond constituency, which covers 700 square miles of some England's most sparsely populated countryside, that it has loyally returned a Tory candidate since 1945.

As one Labour Party activist in the seat put it: "On 5 May they may as well have a 'speak your weight' machine to measure the Tory vote and declare Mr Hague the winner. They weigh Tories here, not count them.

But in the shadow of Richmond's medieval castle, sat on the rise that gave the town its name from the old French "riche monte" or strong hill, all is not well among the ranks of right-thinking Tories that make it a citadel of Conservatism.

In the town's tea shops and the rose gardens, accusations of betrayal are being aimed at the local party. Indeed, such is the level of discontent, there are dark mutterings that just maybe, they may not vote for "our William".

The source of the malaise is a proposal put forward by Richmondshire District Council, controlled by a coalition of Conservatives and independents, to fund a £4.5m council office outside Richmond by selling off land, including its current listed premises and the two car parks on the edge of the town centre.

Opponents claim it will rob the town of its ability to accommodate visitors and scar its painstakingly-preserved Georgian townscape with property developments to fund an expensive and unnecessary building.

Rumours abound that tour operators are considering removing Richmond from their itineraries for lack of parking and, ahem, toilet facilities.

Quite how true that may be is unclear, since the town has other public lavatories and the main car park earmarked for closure is reserved for most of the week for council workers.

On the face of it, it is a parochial row that should have little impact in the overall outcome of a seat where Richmond is not even the largest town (that honour is reserved for Northallerton and Catterick Garrison to the east) and issues with more national resonance, such as access to rural services and the ban on hunting, are also on the debate agenda.

But there can be little understating the depth of anger among many Conservative voters at what they see as their own local politicians riding roughshod over their opinions while their MP maintains an awkward distance.

Two weeks ago, 800 people packed a public meeting on the issue - police were called and the event was cancelled due to public safety concerns.

The result is vows of militancy from instinctive Conservatives who would probably rather be enjoying their time by admiring Richmond's floral displays or involving themselves in the town's impressive crop of history societies, art circles and reading groups.

Judith Steggles, a former teacher and loyal Conservative who has lived in Richmond for 32 years, said: "We are not going to stand for it. We need to fight because we want to keep our town vibrant. But what is really sad is that, in such a strong Conservative area, it is Conservatives who are behind this scheme and Mr Hague, who has been a wonderful MP, is sitting on the fence."

Life-long Conservative, Ruth Brown, a retired primary school teacher who has spent her life in Richmond, added: "It is just going to make us a ghost town. It really makes me think hard about how I'm going to vote for my MP. But there is one thing for sure, we won't let this plan happen. We will tie ourselves to the railings to stop it."

Maybe it was such dangerous radicalism that, earlier this week, caused police and crowd barriers to be erected outside a council meeting attended by opponents to the scheme.

The local authority admits its explanation to the population of the proposals, which they say are vital if the council is to offer an efficient service, has been poorly handled, particularly since their own surveys suggest the two car parks are barely used by the public.

Harry Tabiner, the chief executive of the council, said: "I think we have failed to get our story across. Some false impressions have been created of the nature of what we are trying to do and there has undeniably been a lot of misleading information put out from other sources."

The outcry this week forced Mr Hague, who - since stepping down as party leader in 2001 - has busied himself with activities including a biography of William Pitt the Younger (earnings £200,000) and after-dinner speeches (£40,000 a month), to declare himself opposed to the car park sale.

He was too busy with commitments outside his constituency yesterday to comment on the battle of Richmond but, in a leaflet to be distributed in the town, he called for other financing options to be considered and the opinions of residents to be respected.

Amid this apparent in-fighting, spare a thought for Mr Hague's Labour and Liberal Democrat opponents, who face perhaps the most unequal political fight in the nation over the coming weeks as they try to dent the iron-clad majority.

Neil Foster, a 27-year-old PR consultant from Northallerton who is standing for Labour, said: "I consider the fact people will write off my chances as my greatest strength. On issues such as the car parks, I can help local people make their point. If people want to make a protest vote, they can make it loud and clear by voting for me."

Far away from the "tumult" of the constituency's towns, amid the dramatic hills of the Dales, another body of opinion is also intending to use the election to make its voice heard.

The Zetland Hunt is one of four in the Richmond seat who are urgently reviewing their futures as a result of the ban on fox-hunting.

Nicky Vigors, the joint master of the hunt and a Tory activist, said: "I think the Government have underestimated the strength of feeling in the countryside.

"People are angry at the hunting ban but there is more a sense of upset that ignorance about rural life and prejudice about hunting is going to ruin many livelihoods. It may well leave the Government without a majority."

All of which remains to be seen. But even in the north Yorkshire fortress of the Conservative Party, a sober reality still abounds.

Ron Kirk, the former chairman of the constituency party, said: "You don't win a general election just by winning Richmond."

Easy in Richmond, but how do Conservatives snatch the marginals?

The Conservatives will win Richmond, but they must persuade to voters in marginal seats such as Welwyn Hatfield in Hertfordshire, whose sitting MP is Health minister Melanie Johnson, with a 1,196 majority over the Conservatives. Today we ask our focus group there what would make them vote Tory.

Tarquin Stephenson, 23, president of the Students' Union. Did not vote in 2001

"The one thing I want to hear from any party is the truth. Labour went back on its promise not to introduce top-up fees and that makes it hard to trust any candidates. The Conservative manifesto sounds interesting. But immigration is such a complex issue. It is wrong to bandy the word racist around. People come to Britain for so many reasons. The idea of increasing the number of police is good. [The Tories] seem to be going down the Giuliani route. He made New York safer by increasing the number of police but would that translate to Britain? Different cultures can have different outcomes."

Marek Nusl, 22, student, University of Hertfordshire. Did not vote in 2001

"I would be looking for the Tories to come up with more help for students and those in the inner cities. Their plans for scrapping top-up fees are attractive but charging commercial rates puts me off. Perhaps if they came up with employment schemes for inner-city areas and ideas for helping deprived areas this would make them more attractive. Michael Howard is a liability; he lacks charisma and isn't very photogenic."

Cassie Herman, 20, bar worker. Did not vote in 2001

"If the Tories want my vote they should do something about raising the minimum wage, although considering they were against it when it was introduced, that seems unlikely. Low pay is a big issue in the licensed trade and I don't like the prospect of 24-hour drinking which will mean I have to work longer and have no social life, so they should get rid of that. It would also be good to see more police around. They could call in to the pub now and then just to let people know they are about. As for the Tory tax and spending plans, I'm yet to be convinced they add up."

Jeff Clark, 62, of Hatfield. Voted Labour in 2001

"The emphasis on local politics may convince me to vote Conservative. Our local candidate for the Conservatives, Grant Shapps, lives locally, and Melanie Johnson lives in Cambridgeshire. She does a lot for local issues, but Grant really gets things done and brought to the fore. We have a problem with student parking, and I have nearly 2,000 signatures on a petition, campaigning for a park-and-ride scheme and residents' parking. Melanie says there could be problems with this, but Grant is right behind it.

"I am disenchanted with Labour's changes to the health service. I feel there is a lot of money going in, but it is not getting to the grass roots. It is a top-heavy service, too much bureaucracy."

Sandra Goodwin, 48, editor. Labour in 2001

"The big issue is health. I will be voting for the Tories. My concern is that the standards within the NHS are still disappointing. There are problems with dirty hospitals and waiting lists are still too long. The Tories are stronger on this and I think they can do better. My other concern is the need to sort out the roads. The Government has not had a proper road transport policy, one that takes emissions and pollution into account. I also care about elderly people."

Ellen Stickley, 31, from Hatfield. Labour in 2001

"The immigration policy would make me vote Conservative. I know it sounds bad, but I'm fed up with so many people coming in. It's not fair on British people. We are paying to house them and feed them. We lose opportunities in our country because their desire to get on is stronger than ours. With all the doors open to them, they make their money here and buy a nice property in their own country. I've decided not to vote for anyone. I am fed up with false promises and nothing materialising."