There was none of the rumbustious mud-slinging of Prime Minister’s Questions when the Conservative and Lib Dem General Election candidates for the Honiton & Sidmouth constituency went head to head in a public debate.

Simon Jupp, the Conservative MP for East Devon, shared the platform with Richard Foord, the Liberal Democrat MP for Tiverton & Honiton, at a packed Question Time-style event at Newton Poppleford Pavilion, organised by the parish council on Thursday, February 15.

Introducing the debate, the parish council’s chair Susan Tribble urged MPs and audience members alike to remain courteous and respectful, warning that the event was ‘not for election sword-rattling’.

And, while there were a few political parries and ripostes, politeness prevailed, with nothing approaching a real clash of wills during the two-hour discussion.

The questions to the two MPs reflected a mix of local and national concerns. Among them were the performance of South West Water, particularly regarding sewage discharges into the sea at Exmouth, the shortage of affordable housing in East Devon, and the state of the NHS. Flood prevention in Newton Poppleford and the relocation of Tipton St John Primary School were also discussed.

Running through the entire debate was the theme of local versus national accountability for problems. On the issue of South West Water, Simon Jupp accused the company of ‘environmental vandalism' and described its performance as ‘shameful’. He said the company had long been under-investing in the local area while overcharging bill payers, and that planned improvements to sewage management in Sidmouth and Exmouth were not being implemented quickly enough. Richard Foord argued that water companies are not being regulated properly and said the Government should give more power to OFWAT so that the companies are not rewarded for poor performance.

Earlier, similar views were expressed on flood prevention. Richard Foord said the Environment Agency is under-funded by the Government, making it impossible for staff to do the necessary work with farmers and planning authorities to alleviate flood risk. Simon Jupp emphasised Devon County Council’s work with farmers and the current recruitment drive by the Environment Agency to boost staff numbers in the South West.

On the issue of housing, Simon Jupp lamented the number of empty council homes in East Devon at a time when the council has a waiting list of more than 1,360. He also criticised the number of second homes and holiday lets in the district, and said a proportion of new housing should be available to local residents. He concluded: “I’m not sure EDDC has a full grip on the housing situation.”

Richard Foord said it was ‘way off’ to portray housing shortages as the responsibility of the local authority, and said the Government is failing to tackle a national housing crisis.

The plight of the NHS was clearly an issue of concern to the audience, and again, the MPs disagreed on whether a local or a national approach was needed to tackle key issues including staff recruitment and the allocation of funding.

 Richard Foord said NHS and social care workers are being let down by the ‘buck-passing’ Tory Government ‘pushing all the responsibility for problems on to local NHS services’. He called for the Government to recognise the importance of community health care, particularly in rural and coastal areas like East Devon, and invest in those services accordingly.

Simon Jupp argued that ‘it’s no good blaming Westminster’ as many services are commissioned locally. Highlighting his campaign for Hospiscare to receive a fairer funding allocation from Devon NHS’s Integrated Care Board, he pointed out that the ICB is currently in ‘special measures’ and ‘needs an overhaul’.

Towards the end of the debate, Simon Jupp was challenged over Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s five pledges for 2023: halving inflation, achieving economic growth, reducing national debt, cutting NHS waiting lists and passing new laws to prevent immigrants arriving on small boats.

He acknowledged that not all of these had been achieved yet, but said both inflation and NHS waiting times are coming down, and progress is being made on stopping the small boats.

“We are doing as much as we can but some of these problems are not of our own making,” he said.

“In the time until the next general election, we’ll do our utmost to deliver on those promises. The Prime Minister is working flat out, and I have every faith in him.”

In response Richard Foord said the Government ‘is working very hard in the wrong direction’ and singled out the economic shockwaves still being felt as a result of the ‘hard work’ by Liz Truss during her short-lived premiership.

In a final exchange of views, focusing again on the NHS, Simon Jupp suggested that politics could be taken out of some aspects of the health service, with parties working together for the good of patients. But Richard Foord said it’s all too easy for a Government ‘on the ropes’ to ask for political consensus, and ‘the reality is that the Government is on the hook for this’.

Closing the debate, chair Susan Tribble noted that ‘some very valid and interesting points had been made’ during the course of the evening’.

And, while the debate never became heated, it still served to ‘take the temperature of the room’ in terms of the issues that will be on local voters’ minds when they head to East Devon's polling stations.

A recording of the event can be watched on Newton Poppleford & Harpford Parish Council's Facebook page.