The West Country Debate April: Local elections, immigration and housing

  • Catch up on April's edition of The West Country Debate

It is less than two weeks to go until the local elections and, with high profile visits to the West Country from Liberal Democrat leader Sir Ed Davey and the Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer, opposition parties are confident of making gains.

But the Conservatives have come out fighting this week with the Prime Minister Rishi Sunak talking tough on crime and immigration.

On the panel for April's edition of The West Country Debate:

  • Baroness Bakewell, Lib Dem, former leader of Somerset County Council

  • Conservative Councillor Rebecca Smith, Plymouth City Council

  • Karin Smyth MP, Labour, Bristol South


One of the Prime Minister's top five priorities is to 'stop the boats' - a reference to the record number of people crossing the channel in small boats and claiming asylum.

As the Government struggles to find accommodation for the rising number of asylum seekers, a barge is set to be moored in Portland Port to house around five hundred people.

Local Tory MP Richard Drax labelled the plans 'impractical', 'illogical' and said they were 'in the wrong place'.

Karin Smyth MP described the Government's move as a "sticking plaster", saying a longer-term approach is needed.

She said: "It's another sticking plaster for a problem which needs a more serious long term look at it. We've tried to amend previous legislation to try and break the business model for those trafficking people and work with National Crime Agency. But the government won't take any long term strategic look at this."

Cllr Rebecca Smith defended MPs saying quick action is needed when hotel bills are exceeding £6 million per day.

Cllr Smith said: "It's a massive challenge. There are those coming to this country in genuine need and we have to do what we can to protect them and we have done that through various resettlement schemes...when you're spending 6 million pounds a day on hotels and there's tens of thousands of illegal immigrants here now that we need to deal with, MPs have to take quick action and we are he only ones coming up with that quick action."

Baroness Bakewell says more money must be spent to process asylum claims to help clear the backlog of people.

"To be putting these migrants in close proximity on this barge is absolutely disastrous", she said.

"The problem needs to be sorted further back up the line. The Home Office needs to put more money into staffing the asylum system so applicants are dealt with faster."


Homes England was granted controversial planning permission this week to build 260 homes on historic grassland in Bristol.

Campaigners say they are dismayed by the news which could see the site of nature conservation lost forever.

It comes as the PM insists he is giving more powers to local authorities to choose where to build homes.

Cllr Rebecca Smith said: "All across the South West, local authorities have local plans which has put the power in their hands to decide where these homes should be built.

"That site was part of the 2014 Bristol local plan and was supported by the previous Mayor and current Labour Mayor who sold the land to Homes England - so I don't know why they're surprised they want to build houses on it."

Karin Smyth, MP for Bristol South, says housing is her biggest casework issue.

She said: "It's a really big issue and we need to get that balance right. Especially post-pandemic, green spaces are really important.

"But that does require Conservative MPs in all areas to come to the table, it can't be simply for those of us in urban areas to take all that responsibility."

Baroness Bakewell says she is in favour of taxing second home owners more to protect coastal communities.

She said: "To be putting these migrants in close proximity on this barge is absolutely disastrous. The problem needs to be sorted further back up the line. The Home Office needs to put more money into staffing the asylum system so applicants are dealt with faster."

Local elections

In less than two weeks voters in vast swathes of the West Country will be heading to polling stations for the local elections.

With a General Election potentially a year away the pressure is on for all party leaders.

The Conservatives are in expectation management mode and opposition parties are hoping for big gains.

Baroness Bakewell said: "I think if we do well at these elections in two weeks time, there will be a lot to build on ready for the General Election.

"We did spectacularly well in Tiverton, Buckinghamshire and North Shropshire - all very rural areas. The Conservatives need to look out."

Karin Smyth MP says Labour are 'very optimistic'.

She added: "We're finding people are very fed up with the Conservatives. They are absent, not talking to the doctors, just not turning up for things and producing no long term solution despite being in power for 13 years. People can see what's happening to their local services as well."

Cllr Rebecca Smith said: "It's really hard to call. I think what the PM has been saying around inflation is cutting through. We've given millions of pounds to local authorities to deal with the cost of living crisis."