Photographs in the window of Geoff Hoon's constituency office in Kirkby-in-Ashfield in Nottinghamshire depict the Transport Secretary in the kind of vigorous pose so beloved of politicians: there he is, glad-handing local business leaders, catching balls thrown by smiling schoolchildren and standing purposefully next to shiny new bits of machinery.
But just three doors down at the Craft "E" Corner haberdashers, life is less happy. Customer Laurine Stafford, who is registered disabled, with rheumatoid arthritis and fibromyalgia, asked for a new bed from the local authority a year ago and is still waiting. It was a similar story when she requested a new shower, leaving her forced to wash by crouching in the bath pouring water over herself with a jug.
Mrs Stafford, 52, whose husband gave up work 19 years ago to help care for her, said: "So when these MPs have already got one home and they are getting all this money to buy things it makes me really angry." She said she had sought Mr Hoon's help once over a problem but was not impressed. "It was like talking to a brick wall. In fact, I never actually got to speak to him, it was his secretary. They tell you 'Phone CAB, phone the local authority'. It was a waste of time."
Mr Hoon has had none of these difficulties in making the system work for him, it seems. He presently commands a ministerial salary of £141,866 and has built an impressive property empire reportedy worth £1.7m since joining the Government. His portfolio includes a Georgian townhouse in central London in addition to his sprawling £600,000 Derbyshire constituency home. During his recent time in office, he has been able to claim more than £20,000 a year on his second property, as well as submitting bills for a £1,199 new LCD television (one of two sets claimed in two years), sought reimbursement for up to £400 a month on groceries, claimed money for renovations and recompense for trips to the DIY store. Leaked expenses revealed he was able to switch his second home designation to improve his family home at taxpayers' expense before buying the new elegant London residence while also living for two years in a grace-and-favour flat.
In Kirkby, where even before the recession nearly half of all children were either from workless or low-income households, it is easy to understand why such generous allowances cause dismay and anger. A decent three bedroom house costs just £75,000 – less than half the national average – but that is still far too much for most here. Just up the road from Mr Hoon's constituency office, most of the shops in the precinct have been boarded up and graffitied. Traders say they have closed since a misguided pedestrianisation scheme a decade ago and want Mr Hoon to help them reverse it. So far, they say, they have had no luck rousing his support.
Prior to this, the town suffered a series of economic body-blows. First, the railways closed, then the pits and finally the textile mills which once made Kirkby a thriving town. Perhaps unsurprisingly, decline has engendered hostility to politicians. Janis Dibb, 54, a local landlady, said: "I have got properties but I paid for them myself with hard work. It is pretty insulting for people who have got nothing to hear this kind of thing. I think it is disgusting."
A former miner, Vic Collins, 76, said he would now be voting Conservative at the next election. "I think the Government are all at it. Things round here have just got worse and worse. The road system is ridiculous, the shops have all closed; everything has gone to rack and ruin. I can't understand it. This didn't used to be such a bad place at all."
A retired fitter, Philip Mason, 70, shared a similarly gloomy view of the ruling classes. "They are all ripping the country off. The higher you go up the chain in management or government the more inclined they are to help themselves to anything that is going."
Anne Wright, at Lighthouse estate agents, said that although Mr Hoon's property holdings may have been thriving, business in his constituency was suffering badly in the recession. "It has got harder and harder. People can't get mortgages, banks won't lend. It is the same old story. The whole of this area is Labour-run and it is not being done very well. It is the letting that is keeping us going. If it wasn't for that we would have closed a year ago." Diane Bradbury, 45, summed up the sense of gloom. "Everybody here is struggling and he isn't. I used to vote Labour but I'm not voting no more. I have had it now. This is a very depressing place."
Back at the haberdashers, the ladies were preparing to shut up shop. Despite only being a few doors down from the cabinet minister's office they rarely see him, they said, the only indication of his presence being the bodyguard on duty outside the building when he was in town.
Kirkby seems locked in a spiral of decline. "When I tell my kids we used to go on a pub crawl through town on a Saturday night when we were young they just don't believe me," said Mrs Stafford. "If they revived some of the locals that died in the early 1980s and brought them back here now they wouldn't recognise the place; they would think it was a ghost town."Reuse content