Time to say farewell to East Midlands politics

John Hess
Political editor, East Midlands

Published
image captionAfter nearly 40 years with the BBC, John Hess is set for retirement

All good things have to come to an end eventually. But after 37 years with the BBC - half of that as political editor for the East Midlands - I've decided it's time to move on.

This will be my last blog but it has offered me an opportunity to look back and reflect.

The tiny village of Boothorpe, in North West Leicestershire, probably captures the biggest economic and political changes in the East Midlands that I've witnessed.

It started with a big hole in the ground and it is now one of the biggest landfill sites in the country.

I was here 18 years ago. The then local MP, Labour's David Taylor, had introduced his own parliamentary bill to toughen planning regulations for opencast mining. It was in response to residents' anger.

'Legal precedent'

"My home life has been demolished to such an extent that my human rights have been violated," one of the local residents told me.

This was one of my first stories as political editor.

What started here as a local campaign and was picked up by Mr Taylor, established a benchmark for national planning guidance.

"The process we went through then certainly created a legal precedent," said Robert Nettleton, leader of the village's residents' action group.

"It helped a lot of other groups across the country, who were in a similar position with landfill operators and had other planning concerns."

image captionJohn Hess has managed to cover stories that were not just about politics

For BBC One's Sunday Politics, I travelled 50 miles north to Clipstone in Nottinghamshire.

It used to be a mining village and the locals would tell you the Labour vote - like the coal - used to be weighed. Not any more.

There was a sign of political change in May's general election.

The chancellor, George Osborne, came here to capture the votes of young couples, attracted to Clipstone's new starter homes. The Tories won the seat.

Outside Clipstone's derelict pit site, the area's former Labour MP Paddy Tipping - now Nottinghamshire's Police and Crime Commissioner - reflected on the economic and political whirlwind that has blown through this area.

"In 1980, there were 40,000 miners in the Nottinghamshire coalfield," he said.

"Today there are fewer than 300 and in a few weeks there will be none.

"There are new industries. Yes, we've moved from 19th Century technology into the 21st Century but it's been slow progress."

'Simple political message'

There have been big changes at Westminster too.

I've got to know the place pretty well over the years. But what makes parliament fascinating is not its Victorian gothic splendour but the ideas and passions of those politicians seeking a platform.

Former MP Alan Simpson is an inspiring example. I met up with him in his Nottingham lacemakers' cottage - once derelict and home to the city's pigeon population.

Yet he transformed the building into a model of green power generation. The political message was simple: if he could do it, why not government?

He said: "You were at the starting point of changing this from a derelict shell into a place that produces more electricity than it consumes.

image captionJohn enjoys an ice cream in Brighton for a Labour party conference

"And the point was this, every house in the future needs to be delivering this sort of change."

Radical big idea politicians can be an real irritant to their own party leadership but great copy for a political journalist.

"If we look back to that '97 New Labour government, there was a real upsurge of optimism," said the former Nottingham South MP.

"But it fell victim to big corporate interests,"

The Melton and Rutland MP, Sir Alan Duncan, has his own reasons to remember the Blair/Brown years.

This Tory radical was in opposition.

"We went through three leaders - Michael Howard, William Hague, Iain Duncan Smith," he said.

"It was only with the fourth and David Cameron that we finally won outright in May. So it was a very long journey."

image captionOne of John Hess' first jobs as political editor concerned a village in Boothorpe

Sir Alan became an international development minister in the coalition government but it was a personal decision that was to become a significant political statement.

In 2002, he became the first senior Conservative to announce he was in a gay relationship. He later married his partner.

"It needed to be led by example," he said.

"That social change in attitudes over the last 20 years has been a very positive step forward. It's really good. We should be proud of that."

Despite the ideological gulf between the two Alans - Duncan and Simpson - they share concerns and regrets about recent trends in the status of parliament.

'Brave and courageous'

"There has been a closing down in the mind set of parliament," said Alan Simpson.

"There's a huge sense of political and personal insecurity now about the governance of the country. And people are afraid of big ideas."

Sir Alan said: "Power is concentrated in Number 10 and it's sapped away a lot from parliament.

"It's become too much of a rubber stamp. What I do regret over the last 20 years in politics, is that too much of that power is hand-me-down press release politics rather than parliamentarians being brave and courageous."

The very fabric of parliament itself now faces an uncertain future because of enormous repair costs.

But if parliament is to be fixed and remain relevant for the rest of the 21st Century, the voice of its radicals and rebels still needs to heard loud and clear.

As for the East Midlands, industry has had a huge impact on our environment.

That together with how the region has come to terms with massive economic change, has remained a constant theme....and will continue to be so.

image captionNottinghamshire once had about 40,000 miners and soon there will be none

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