Three Stevenage General Election candidates united in their condemnation of Conservative policies on the regeneration of Stevenage town centre, austerity and attending election hustings at a question time event at the Comet offices in Stevenage last night.

Labour candidate Sharon Taylor, Lib Dem Barbara Gibson and Green candidate Victoria Snelling took part in the Facebook Live event broadcast from our offices in Primett Road.

Tory candidate Stephen McPartland did not attend and will not be at two further hustings events organised by Stevenage Churches Together and the NUT on Sunday and Monday respectively, as he told the COmet his campaign diary had been locked down in advance.

But the candidates all said they felt Mr McPartland should have attended as part of his duty as an elected MP.

Ms Gibson said: “It’s sad that our only male candidate is not here tonight because I would like to have heard from him what he thinks he has accomplished in his two terms. I see promises of things in the future but no actual plans of how he would accomplish those things. I would like to see him take part in one of the hustings to answer those questions.”

The Comet: Conservative Stephen McPartland.Conservative Stephen McPartland. (Image: Archant)

Ms Taylor said it should be part of his duty as an election candidate to attend such events to speak to the electorate and said it was “very disappointing” he did not attend.

Referring to Mr McPartland’s refusal to work with Stevenage Borough Council and its partners on its plans for the regeneration of the town centre, all three candidates agreed that the project would go ahead much more effectively if the ‘sitting MP’ would back it.

Mr McPartland has favoured an alternative scheme to the one proposed by the Stevenage First partnership, which would be retail-led and supported by a government corporation.

Ms Gibson said: “Clearly it’s not going to work to have local government and the MP at opposite ends and fighting each other. This should not be about political game playing, it’s just ridiculous that Mr McPartland has not supported the project and has just sniped at it from the side.

“Stevenage deserves something better. Right now it looks as if it’s stuck in the past and that needs to change.”

Ms Taylor, who is also leader of Stevenage Borough Council which is working on the plan together with Herts Chamber of Commerce, Herts LEP and Herts County Council, added: “I hugely share the frustrations at the time it’s taken to get this plan underway.

“We’ve asked over an over again for our MP to get on board with this project and work with us all.

“If our MP would work with us, that would be fantastic, otherwise we will go ahead and do it anyway.”

“We’ve pulled together a very strong working group and we have a very clear focus that we have to think about the changes in retail, the increase in leisure facilities that people want and the housing issues because this provides and opportunity for people to live and work close to the town centre.

Ms Taylor said a developer to build the first part of the regeneration should be announced by the autumn, adding: “We need an MP that’s backing this and supports it, not one that backs away from it.”

Ms Snelling said she wanted to see regeneration of brownfield sites and use of “old sites for new purposes”, as well as looking at ways to ensure people won’t have long commutes to work. She said she wants to see a town that is energy efficient with trees and green areas with greater opportunities for walking and cycling.

All three candidates demanded people vote in the General Election to abandon Conservative austerity policies.

Sharon Taylor said: “I believe people in Stevenage have got a choice. The last seven years has seen the Tory government decimate public services that people hold so dear and had an obsession with austerity.

“I believe Labour has shown our town and our country there is another way forward, a future where everyone can succeed and where the economy is not just rigged in favour of a few people at the top.”

Barbara Gibson, who originally comes from the US state of Oklahoma, said she agreed the Tory policy of austerity had destroyed many public services and her party would find alternative ways of funding them.

Ms Taylor said the housing crisis is now a “housing emergency” in Stevenage with a doubling in homelessness, while many people live in expensive rented properties they can’t afford or are poor quality.

She said her party is committed to building more social housing to help solve the crisis and schemes to help people buy homes.

“We’ve go to tackle this because it causes so many problems for families and communities,” she said.

Ms Snelling said the Green Party would introduce rent control and restrictions on short term lets and Ms Gibson said many disused and empty properties could be brought back into use and that council tax should be hiked up on empty properties so people don’t buy and hold onto empty homes.

On Brexit, Ms Gibson said the Government’s ‘hard Brexit’ strategy would damage the UK and that the Lib Dems would work to soften its impact particularly on businesses and trade. Ms Taylor added the government had “recklessly led the country” into a referendum without planning for the impact of Brexit.

On health, all sides said Conservative funding for the NHS was too little, and announced different taxation schemes which would pay for greater investment in hospitals and health centres as well as advocating greater work on health prevention and community-based health care.

All the candidates condemned the Tory government’s “education cuts” which they said are having a disastrous effect on schools. Ms Gibson said her party would ensure pay rises for teachers and Ms Taylor said more must be done to build schools to meet demand and to invest in better education programmes. Ms Snelling said the Greens would focus on pupils starting school at seven years old, with a greater focus on parental contributions to education.

Mr McPartland told the Comet afterwards: “It is rude of organisations to expect me to drop other commitments and groups because they believe they are more important. If I have made a commitment, I keep it – and have done so as the Member of Parliament for the last seven years.

“In terms of regeneration, local people and myself are opposed to the current plans which include knocking down the Gordon Craig Theatre, Stevenage Library and building 1,200 flats on the leisure park to wipe out our community facilities, while the town centre shops will be kept as they are. We need a regeneration plan that has a new town centre with modern shops at the heart of it.

“Our local NHS is doing a fantastic job and talking down our hard working nurses and teachers is disgusting. I have secured a £150 million redevelopment of the Lister Hospital, schools have been rebuilt and expanded. 40 of my 42 primary and nursery schools are rated good or outstanding, which is one of the highest in the country. Local people are doing a great job working hard in our community and I am focused on delivering for them.”