Wessex Scene Interviews Labour Candidate Alan Whitehead

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Alan Whitehead

You have been Southampton Test constituencies MP now since 1997, are you in confident mood of retaining the position coming up to voting day?

Yes I am. Mainly on the basis of the work we have done over the years and the campaign we are currently promoting in the Southampton Test area at the moment. I see myself as having a long term association with Southampton and I hope my local city connections are seen as a factor in the upcoming election. I think representing your city and constituency properly is very important in addition to any of the political labels you’re attached to.

I understand you used to be the President of Southampton Universities Student Union, could you tell me about that experience and what you feel your main student based policies are?

I was student’s union president many years ago, in 1971-2, and it was a period of great turbulence for Higher Education, I remember there being University sittings in the Nuffield Theatre. I’d like to feel in my time I helped the University get on a better footing, as far as a proper representative body was concerned. At that time students had very little access to the actually decision making process and running of the University. As far as student based policies now, the key issue over the next few years is making sure there is a fair system regarding student fees and maintenance fees.  The original Higher Education Act, which went through Parliament in 2005, has set up what I think is a sustainable system for student payments, particularly the question of taking away upfront fee payments and adding a substantial grant to those from less well off backgrounds. These were the idea’s that I happened to have a central hand in, together with the idea that after 5 years there would be a complete review that could not lead to a rise in top up fees, that again I was keen to see go through, without a full debate in parliament. So now we have got the Browne Review underway. My view is that we need to ensure there is a continued maximum cap, and that we don’t go for variable fees and we ensure the fee element that is in place offers equal access to all students and to all forms of higher education. We also need to make sure we don’t become an elite system which charges high fees and effectively excludes most people. I think the NUS proposals for a fee system which effectively sets up a payment trust with contributions made over a period of years subsequently, depending on what happens to them subsequent to their course, as a long term sound system of relating outcomes to fees has a lot of potential. The particular problem with that programme is how it funds itself.

Do you feel students are good for Southampton, as it has often been said that there is a divide between the student and local communities?

On the whole certainly, yes they are good in a variety of ways. The fact you have got two major universities in the community is of tremendous benefit, not just to Southampton but to the whole region. Southampton University’s research facilities and the work being done to incorporate and develop the institutions is very important. There are and always have been issues with for example, student housing in the city. There are some issues and it is important to ensure the students and local community are good neighbours, I think that both Universities have done a lot to assist with this. Overwhelmingly, they are both good for the local community and we need to ensure we can assist this.

You were involved with passing a law involving Houses of Multiple Occupation can you explain your position on this issue?

I think among other things  this relates to the way the city and Universities can live together. The need for accommodation for students is paramount, and we know this won’t be supplied by the universities themselves. I think the proposals which are now made into law, which actually require landlords who are seeking a change of use for a property to run it past planning scrutiny, is good news potentially for both the city and students. The possibility of licensing landlords in the city will ensure we know the accommodation for students is better regulated, safer and more increasingly likely to be better value. As far as I am concerned these are win, win proposals and by no means an attack on any group.

Many people think the legislation will mean the local council will limit HMO and student housing to no more than four per household are they right?

There is no proposal to limit the number of students per house, that is not what we suggest. We can see there are lots of houses which are HMO with more than that now. All it says, is that if you are a landlord and want to run a house as multiple occupations with more than four people in the house, then that would require a change of use to be passed through us. That doesn’t mean the local authority will say no, you can’t have the change of use it would just be made more reasonable.  It would not affect any of those in use at the moment, although these in my opinion will be affected positively by the new licensing laws. No one is going to go around closing HMO’s with more than four students or other types of people the only affect as far as that is concerned is that people may see that there houses are better maintained and safer.

Where do you stand on talk of replacing Trident?

My view is that if we do have an independent nuclear deterrent in the future then it needs to relate to the times we are now in. One of the central issues of trident is and was that it was a system designed for the cold war, and which could target at any one stage 48 intercontinental war ballistic missiles with multiple warheads from an undetectable submarine under the ocean on to Russia. Clearly the threats and concerns in the world now are real, but not those. In reviewing what our nuclear deterrent might look like, probably the last thing you would start from now is a new programme of submarines with intercontinental missiles staying underwater at many months at a time. If we do have a submarine system maybe it should be based on submarines we already have based elsewhere which can launch cruise missiles elsewhere but won’t obliterate the earth in four minutes but would provide a credible nuclear deterrent against the threats we do face. We are in a system where there are unknown and uncertain threats in particular parts of the world that require a mobile defence force and a mobile response. You would probably design it completely differently. If we are to replace trident we need to look at replacing our submarines pretty early on, and a defence review would be a good opportunity to do so. A defence review would be the opportunity to say we are going to review our entire defence system and it is absolutely right that this should be reviewed as well. If meanwhile we make commitments to go ahead with the forty or fifty year replacement of Trident as it stands, then we actually need to take that out of a possible defence review. So the question of an independent nuclear deterrent is not completely wrapped up with that review, that’s what David Cameron has said so he has taken that out of the defence review as well. Similarly, if you scrap Trident or anything to do with a nuclear deterrent then you always take that out of a defence review, so I think that is the right way forward.  If you were to do that, and for example order three astute class submarines with cruise missile attachments the total cost over the lifetime of that contract would be about a third of what a son or daughter of trident would be. Tha is financially very significant but also addresses the issue of getting the deployment of a nuclear deterrent up to date with the needs of the world.

You are heavily involved with issues surrounding climate change and our CO2 Emissions which is an issue very important to many students. What do you feel needs to be done to tackle these problems?

I regard this as one of my highest imperatives regarding the work I have done in parliament.  We have made enormous steps forward which I have been heavily involved in, regarding what steps we put together to make sure we deal with climate change effectively and how we stick to our targets which we are now legally signed up to, in reducing our CO2 emissions by 80% by 2050. Mechanisms are increasingly in place regarding our carbon budgets, the arrangements regarding how we increase substantially our proportion of renewable and sustainable energy and how we make our economy far more energy more efficient. All of which are crucial elements to meet out targets. Our priority within a ten to fifteen year period should be to move decisively away from a high carbon economy to a low carbon economy. Among other things, that means a fundamental change in the way we produce our energy. If so to speak, we do have a window of opportunity, because of the large number of power stations going out of commission in the coming period, then we should be looking to replace them with low carbon or renewable resources of energy which can be the basis to build our low carbon economy upon. We also have a great deal in terms of how efficiently we use the energy we do produce. Something like 30% of our emissions come from our homes, so it’s how we build and maintain housing and homes in such a way that they are vastly more efficient than now. So large scale programmes ensuring all homes are energy efficient and new homes are carbon neutral is imperative.

Finally, why do you think Gordon Brown should continue to be our Prime Minister?

I think the immediate issue is that we have just started to come out of the worst global recession since the 1930’s, which was not caused by the UK but for which the UK suffered quite substantially. The decisions made to make sure we came out of that recession with good prospects for the future of the economy were crucial. Decisions about peoples savings in British banks, what we did about the banks themselves and what we did in supporting industry and jobs, what we did about stopping business collapses and making sure people’s homes were not repossessed through mortgage default. All of those are very positive and political decision which Gordon Brown made and at every stage were opposed by the Conservatives. The conservative recipe has always been let the market decide and lets cut the money invested in the British economy so the books may be “balanced” but in reality would lead to a double dip recession and catastrophe for the public services which a lot of people have depended on, going in and coming out of the recession, and that is simply the wrong course to adopt. Gordon Brown is the right person I think, to take us through the next stage. Tough decisions will be made but tough choices based on the priority of public services, people’s jobs and people’s homes are the one’s that we need to continue to get clear as we continue to rebuild the economy.

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