All posts tagged 'Kent'

The Friday Five: The week in Kent politics

by Paul on Politics, by political editor Paul Francis Friday, March 21 2014

It has been  busy week on the political front in Kent this week. Here's my round-up of the five key stories affecting the county:

1. Chancellor George Osborne took plenty of people by surprise when he dropped into an interview with Andrew Marr on the BBCthat he was planning to build the first 'garden city' in north Kent at Ebbsfleet. But how 'new' was this?

His comments about a city for 15,000 new homes were not dissimilar to an announcement made by the government two years ago - only this time the number of homes was a little lower and there was a promise of an Urban Development Corporation to oversee the development.

That sparked some concerns that a quango would bypass the democratic planning system and the views of local councils. Still, Osborne sees it as an important symbol of the government's determination to build more homes - and took aim at Labour's failures in the past saying its track record was "more ebb than fleet". Alright, not the best joke but not bad for the politician who many see as having had a sense of humour bypass. 

However, some of the shine was taken off when it emerged that parts of the area where new homes were planned could be at risk of serious flooding.


2. Many have tried; many have failed. Yes, the fate of Manston Airport hangs in the balance as its latest owner stunned many with an announcement that it was to close. A 45-day consultation with 150 staff is underway and many see it as the end of the road for the site, at least as an airport. MPs and council leaders rushed to denounce the proposed closure but there are signs that this time, the end is nigh. The airport was bought by Ann Gloag, a Scottish businesswoman, for £1 last November and there seemed to be the prospect of a brighter future.

But the transformation team brought in to assess its prospects apparently concluded there were none. Now, there are whispers and rumours of the site being sold for housing development.


3. Could the picturesque Weald of Kent prove to be the new Texas? Unlikley though it may seem, the prospect of parts of Kent sitting on a huge oil bonanza have been raised in an as yet unpublished government commissioned report from geologists.

It is said to conclude that huge energy reserves could be under The Weald. Stand by for a rush for black gold and the sight of people dispensing with their tweeds in favour of  ten-gallon hats and cowboy boots. Tonbridge and Malling MP Sir John Stanley gave the news a qualified welcome but some of his colleagues were rather reticent.


4. If it wasn't exactly a give-away budget, Chancellor George Osborne sprinkled enough goodiesaround to keep his party happy and set the backdrop for the next election - astutely delivering some good news for the sort of disaffected Conservative supporters who just might be flirting with UKIP.  

For Kent, there was news of an extra £140m for flood defences; confirmation of the Ebbsfleet 'Garden City' scheme and news of more duty on fixed odds betting machines. 


5. County Hall has been a little quiet but we did get news of changes in the Conservative-run cabinet.  Although it  was hardly a reshuffle. In the light of the "Facing The Challenge" re-organisation, the cabinet has been tinkered with so that the ten-strong group is aligned with the smaller number of directorates. Opposition parties were quick to query why, if the council was slimming down so much, was it necessary to keep ten politicians in the executive overseeing just four directorates.

One notable change in the cabinet will come in August, when Cllr Jenny Whittle, the well-regarded cabinet member for children's specialist services, goes on maternity leave.  Her job will be taken by Peter Oakford, who was elected to the council last year.

That in turn will leave the cabinet as an all-male group. There are some who think that once Paul Carter has had his fill of the job, Jenny Whittle would be well-placed to succeed him. 


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The Friday Five: the week's top political stories from Kent

by Paul on Politics, by political editor Paul Francis Friday, March 14 2014

Welcome to the Friday Five - my view of the week's most interesting stories from around Kent.

1. Education continued to top the political agenda in the county, with the week starting with news of a possible development in the long-running saga of the efforts to open a new satellite grammar school in Sevenoaks. After a series of knock backs, there was better news when The Weald of Kent Girls Grammar School announced it was considering going co-educational so it could become the sponsor school for the annex. An important step forward but as I blogged, there is a long way to go before it becomes a reality.

2. Another long-running saga threw up an interesting twist down in Thanet, where the council continues to pick through the debris of its disastrous secret deal with ferry company Transeuropa, which left it having to write off £3.4m owed by the company. Documents released to me under the Freedom of Information Act revealed how council officials worried that potential Italian investors in the company could have Mafia links and might use the company to launder money. You don't often get to write a story with the words 'council' 'mafia' and 'money laundering' in the intro...

3. Back to education and cue a furore caused by the leak of a county council document to The Guardian outlining what could happen to headteachers who presided over failing schools in Kent. In short, KCC said they would be put on gardening leave and eased out. Unsurprisingly, this failed to get much support among heads, who decried the 'hire and fire' policy and compared the authority's approach to the dirty war waged by the military junta in Argentina where activists who opposed it were "disappeared."

4. You just can't can't keep the UKIP leader out of the news. No, we are not talking about certain allegations raised in Brussels about Nigel Farage's use of public allowances for the party but this - the court case involving a protestor who hit him over the head with a placard during a visit to Thanet.

5. The week ended on a sad note with the news of the death of lifelong Socialist Tony Benn. As to be predicted, it drew tributes from across the political divide although I suspect he would have regarded some of it as sentimental tosh. Over-used word in the many tributes was the reference to "left-wing firebrand." Sadly, I never interviewed him but I did go along to one of his theatre events. He talked and talked and talked - and then invited questions from the audience and continued to talk and talk some more. He was a bit like Fide Castro...

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Fracking push leaves councils in a bind.

by Paul on Politics, by political editor Paul Francis Tuesday, January 14 2014

There are good reasons why the planning system has legal safeguards to stop developers offering sweeteners to councils. 

But there is nothing to stop politicians from doing so - which explains how the government has been able, as it announced yesterday, to dangle the promise of money before hard-pressed local authorities if they give the go-ahead to fracking wells.

Government push for more fracking denounced as bribery>>>

The political line is that communities that are affected by fracking deserve a share in the rewards.

In this case, it is a pledge that councils will be able to keep 100% of the business rates companies pay. There is also the promise that communities where wells are sunk may get an additional dividend from any profits.

Of course, the politicians would prefer us to describe this as an incentive rather than a bribe.

But whatever term you use, it still looks like a fairly naked attempt to buy off councils who are desperately short of money - not least because the government has cut their grants. 

It is hard to tell how planning authorities will respond but they are in an invidious position. Give the go-ahead for drilling wells and they stand to be accused of putting money before the environment.

Refuse and others will complain that they are running scared and want to avoid becoming the next Balcombe, let alone forfeiting money that could be used to support crucial frontline services.

Fracking is controversial and the government's latest intervention is only likely to make it more so. In fact, it reinforces the perception that there are risks associated with the way shale gas is extracted.

After all, if the arguments in favour of fracking were so comprehensive and persuasive, would there be any need to make such offers?


Kent County Council has produced a new version of its report that rather controversially asserted that there was a link between the government's welfare reforms and rising crime, homelessness and food bank use.

It followed a decision from council leader Paul Carter to withdraw the report over concerns that the evidence on which conclusions were drawn was flawed and data was misnterpreted

Guess what?

The second report has concluded that the evidence on which the conclusions were drawn was indeed flawed and it was too early to say "with any certainty" what the impact of the changes might be.

Fancy that.



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Not grounded - but not cleared for take-off either

by Paul on Politics, by political editor Paul Francis Tuesday, December 17 2013

It is being seen as a sop to Mayor of London Boris Johnson and a political fudge. But while Sir Howard Davies has left the door ajar to a new hub airport in north Kent, perhaps it is only so the door can eventually be closed completely.

Opponents will no doubt argue that there already is plenty of evidence that the scheme is a non-starter and the report published today touches on them - the prohibitive costs, the environmental impact and the need for huge investment in the transport infrastructure.

So why hasn't the government appointed commission decided that it is, as opponents are fond of saying, all "pie in the sky?"

One explanation might be that the commission wants to be absolutely certain that the Thames Estuary option should be ruled out and in opting for a closer analysis of the pros and cons, is determined deliver such a definitive and comprehensive case against it that the debate is ended once and for all.

It does, of course, offer Boris Johnson and others to renew the argument in favour but it is hard to see how they can produce more compelling evidence to support the case.

Sir Howard has acknowledged that the hurdles are far higher for the Isle of Grain than the options shortlisted for Heathrow and Gatwick.

It would take some fairly creative arithmetic to reduce these costs. And what additional evidence could be produced to mitigate the well-documented environmental impact?

Perhaps the highest hurdle for the Kent option is that it would require a major investment in the existing transport infrastructure - adding to the colossal financial impact on the taxpayer.

In such circumstances, it is hard to see how it could become a more viable contender when subjected to the close analysis that the Davies Commission has indicated.

Yes, the decision to keep the scheme in the mix is frustrating.

But at the end of next year, the "uncertainties and challenges" that Sir Howard says surround the Kent proposal are unlikely to be overcome in a way that would allow him to add it to the shortlisted options for Heathrow and Gatwick announced today.



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Kent's grammar conundrum - where now?

by Paul on Politics, by political editor Paul Francis Sunday, December 15 2013

In public at least, Kent County Council has been relatively restrained in its response to the news that the government has rejected the bid for a grammar school annexe in Sevenoaks.

Council leader Paul Carter spoke constructively of his desire to "help" Michael Gove find a way to give the scheme the go ahead; education cabinet member Cllr Roger Gough issued an emollient statement expressing regret but acknowledging that the decision was a setback.

Behind these carefully-phrased statements in public, there is real irritation at Mr Gove's apparent reluctance to do what he can to effect the provision of more grammar school places.

But KCC and campaigners knew at the outset that it was a calculated risk to contrive a proposal that could somehow be fitted into the complex and conflicting legal arrangements that surround academies, selection and the ability of schools and LEAs to respond to demographic pressures.

The argument appears to have turned on two key issues: whether the annexe proposal could be considered an extension of an existing school - which would have permitted the proposal - and whether the plan would be consistent with existing admissions arrangements at the two schools bidding to be the sponsor.

It was a sign of the county council's own uncertainty that it sought outside legal advice from specialist education lawyers. This advice was not made public because of the finely balanced arguments involved that the county council feared would - if disclosed - open the door to a possible legal challenge from opponents.

That the DfE was so conclusive in its rejection of KCC's favoured bid - the one involving the Invicta Academy Trust in Maidstone - does rather suggest the county council was perhaps overly optimistic: it is hard to imagine that the advice it received did not set out the fairly obvious grounds in which the DfE could refuse the plan.

Particularly telling is the phrase in the DfE's letter to Invicta that "various assertions clearly indicate that the reason for your proposal is a desire to establish a new school."

Not that the bid might be open to argument but that it "clearly indicates" if not the motive then the consequences of it. Kent County Council would also have known that the plan might founder on the rules around admissions - indeed, this is an area in which the authority has plenty of experience in the context of managing a selective system.

A scheme that involved a single sex girls school 19 miles away from its proposed co-educational annexe - and suggest a new boys annex at the Maidstone site to overcome the same-sex issue - may have the merit of inventiveness but would, I suspect, have been fairly comprehensively demolished in the courts.

As to the Weald of Kent and its rival bid, the DfE was a little less harsh but concluded, as it did with the Invicta bid, the proposal was not complaint with the current Admissions Code.

All of which will be of little comfort to campaigners who have sought to address what is the genuine problem in the area - namely, a shortage of selective places in Sevenoaks.

I doubt whether the Invicta Trust will want to engage in a new bid; the Weald of Kent would appear to have greater room for manouvre but would still have to address the issue that it is a single sex school and becoming co-educational might just be more hassle than it is worth.

The DfE says the door remains open to other proposals but warns that they must not be a new school. The Conservative administration at KCC has invested significant time and effort in backing the idea of a new selective annexe but the DfE's explicit judgement on both bids indicate the huge difficulties of devising any scheme that would comply with the law.

Michael Gove could of course take steps to amend the legislation on selection and admissions but I rather doubt he will - even if, on the political front, he is taking a lot of flax for blocking a new grammar school.

The intervention of the chief inspector of Ofsted Michael Wilshaw who has made a scathing attack on grammars will not be encouraging for pro-selection campaigners.

In an interview with The Observer, Mr Wilshaw says the government should reject calls for more grammars, saying they do nothing for social mobility.

"The grammar schools might do well with 10% of the school population, but everyone else does really badly. What we have to do is make sure all schools do well in the areas in which they are located."

KCC may quietly decide that the answer to the shortage of selective places lies somewhere else.

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Kent's political selection box: round-up of latest candidate news

by Paul on Politics, by political editor Paul Francis Tuesday, July 30 2013

It is proving a busy month for those who have eyes on the county as a place to launch or take the next step in their political careers, so here is a round up of recent selection news:

Labour has chosen its parliamentary candidates for a further three of Kent's constituencies. In Thanet South, the party has nominated Will Scobie to take on Laura Sandys. He was elected to the county council in May - one of Labour's few succeses in Thanet - and is also a Thanet council member. He faces the challenge of overturning a 7,000+ majority. Despite being a youthful 24, he has plenty of political experience under his belt although social media has inevitably seen some adverse comments that he has no other "outside" experience beyond politics. From what I have seen at County Hall, he seems pretty sharp.

Sittingbourne and Sheppey Labour party has opted for Guy Nicholson, a Yorkshireman living in London who serves on Hackney council as cabinet member for regeneration and Olympic legacy. It is his first stab at fighting a general election. He faces the challenge of trying to overcome a 12,000+ majority in 2015. The seat was back in 2005 a "super marginal" with a narrow Labour majority of 79 but Gordon Brown's implosion turned the seat into a relatively secure Conservative one in 2010.

Finally, Gravesham has chosen local councillor Tanmanjeet Singh Dhesi, 34, a former Gravesham mayor who has strong local roots having attended Gravesend Grammar School and lived most of his life in the area. He has already notched up a political first - he became the youngest Sikh mayor of any counci in the UK in 2011. He is currently cabinet member for business and communities on the council. Adam Holloway held on to this seat with a majority of 9,312 in 2010 and Labour considers this a viable target although the party made relatively modest gains in the KCC election - a signal perhaps that it has plenty of work to do to win back disaffected voters.


Meanwhile, the Conservatives are in the midst of choosing the candidates who will be on the regional list for the south east at next year's European elections. The convoluted selection process has a little while to run and party members are voting for candidates on two lists. In the south east, members have already picked the arch Euro-sceptic Dan Hannan and Nirj Deva - both already MEPs - as the two who will automatically go to the top of the list.

They are also deciding who should be on the general shortlist, the candidates who will make up the rest of the party's platform. The ranking depends on how many votes they each get and in the south east, there is some interest in how Richard Ashworth, the leader of the Conservative group in Brussels, will fare after he failed to make the top two. If he comes anywhere less than third on the ballot, he is unlikely to be returned to Parliament.

Also on the list is the Shepway councillor Rory Love.


UKIP is already taking up its prospects of doing well at the European election but has yet to decide which names will be on its list. Hustings meetings were held at the weekend and 26 hopefuls put themselves forward. These will be whittled down to 12 in the coming weeks. Among those in the frame is the Tunbridge Wells councillor and former Kent crime commissioner candidate Piers Wauchope.


Finally, the search is underway for the person the Conservatives want to replace the veteran Tonbridge and Malling MP Sir John Stanley. Sir John is retiring in 2015 and his departure opens up a rock solid safe Conservative seat that plenty of hopefuls have their eye on. It should be a high calibre shortlist when the constituency gets around to whittling down names in the Autumn.

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Categories: Localism | Politics

Secrets of Sandwich

by The Fly Away American (in Kent), with Jessica Galbraith Thursday, July 11 2013

First off, I must apologize for my absence here on Kent Online. My house was infiltrated by the chicken pox, so I have been having tons of fun dealing with that. This Travel Thursday I want to talk about my trip to the lovely town of Sandwich. I had heard that the Secret Gardens of Sandwich were spectacular so I ventured off to see for myself and check out what else the little town had to offer.      

Turns out, Sandwich is well-worth a visit. You may not know this, but Sandwich has more listed buildings per head of population than any other town in the country. You can go back in time as you walk the cobble-stone streets in the country's most complete medieval town. Strand Street in Sandwich is believed to have more half timbered houses than any other street in England! While it is a great town just to take a stroll, there are a few places you should take the time to stop at along the way.

The Secret Gardens of Sandwich

Unlike just about everything else in Sandwich, the Secret Gardens are not old. They opened to the public only a few years ago, after the grounds had been neglected for decades. The Salutation Manor sits at the center of the beautiful gardens, a fantastic manor house which was built in 1912 as a weekend retreat. Now the manor is open as a luxurious hotel, with self-serving cottages on the grounds as well. I popped in at the cafe but unfortunately the service was not too great, and after waiting 20 minutes decided to go elsewhere. 

The gardens themselves are spectacular. Roses galore, along with many exotic species in every color imaginable. I enjoyed walking the paths and 'discovering' the secret gardens within, and with 3.5 acres of blooms one could easily spend an afternoon there. Picnics are not only allowed, they are encouraged. I would definitely check this one out on a beautiful day. 

The origin of the sandwich

The next time you pick up a 'meal deal' or stop in at Subway, take a moment to think about where your sandwich originated. If you are to believe the tales of history, the answer lies in its namesake of Sandwich, Kent. The story is set at Guildhall, a 15th century building in the town centre. The tale goes that a Mr. John Montagu the 4th Earl of Montagu, was gambling at the Guildhall and wanted a bite to eat. He didn't want to waste time with a proper meal during his game, so ordered the barmaid to combine his meat and bread to save time. There you go, history made.

The story is difficult to authenticate as you can imagine, but the name 'sandwich' most definitely finds its origins in south east Kent (Whether or not the founding father hailed from there.) Guidlhall has a museum which you can visit and learn more about the local history and folklore.


You can also take a ride on the River Stour boat and check out the sea seals and other wildlife in Pegwell bay, or take a walk along the Sandwich Rope Walk with it's nice sidewalks along the canals. Sandwich is a gorgeous town, and I look forward to going back soon!


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Categories: kent | The Fly Away American | Tourism | travel

The Fly Away American (in Kent)

by The Fly Away American (in Kent), with Jessica Galbraith Thursday, June 13 2013

Hello KentOnline readers!


Welcome to my inaugural post here on KentOnline. This blog will follow my travels around Kent, as well as the UK. I am visiting new attractions, taking part in fun acitivities, and attending events around Kent every week. Check in every Thursday for my 'Travel Thursday' column. I will give you tips, share my sucessess and failures, and write about living in Kent as an American expat. 

The short and sweet: My name is Jessica, I am originally from a small town in Texas. (Population >300) I studied Asian Studies at University where I met my other half who was studying abroad from Holland. After a few years of dating, I moved with our daughter to a suburb of Amsterdam. Two years ago we relocated to Folkestone, which we absolutely love!

I look forward to sharing my travel experiences with all of you. Feel free to follow me on Twitter @flyawayamerican and Facebook  as well as my main blog The Fly Away American.

Don't forget to share your suggestions on the best places to see in Kent!




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Categories: Budget | Facebook | Family Life | Football | History | Nostalgia | Tourism | travel | kent

Are Kent Conservative backbenchers feeling UKIP nipping at their heels?

by Paul on Politics, by political editor Paul Francis Thursday, May 16 2013

Unlike many, politicians have to re-apply for their jobs every four or five years and the decision about whether they should be re-appointed is in the hands of voters.

And voters can be rather unpredictable and prone to switch allegiances, as the recent county council election showed rather dramatically.

So, we should not be surprised that a number of Conservative backbenchers in the county voted last night for the 'rebel' amendment on the Queen's Speech.

There is nothing like a bruising mid-term electoral lashing to concentrate the mind and the Kent MPs who backed the amendment no doubt had given careful consideration to the dramatic UKIP surge in the county council election.

So, this was a convenient way of sending a message to the electorate that they are as sceptical about Europe as any UKIP candidate who might be on the ballot paper in 2015.

Their decision to blow a raspberry at Mr Cameron will prove particularly helpful in election literature to post through doors in a couple of years.

Conservative backbenchers in Kent know that the issue of Europe is not going to go away. Those who knocked on doorsteps during the recent election campaign found that Britain's membership of the EU and immigration were often not far from voters' thoughts.

While UKIP is unlikely to win Parliamentary seats at the next election, that is not the point. It is whether UKIP will cost them votes in sufficient numbers to lose them their seats.

Marginal seats like those in the Medway Towns, north Kent and Thanet have switched between Labour and the Conservatives over recent years and if there is one thing that current MPs fear it is that a split in the vote for the right will allow Labour back in.

Whether UKIP's surge will be durable is, of course, open to question.

But if the results of the recent election showed anything, it is that voters are deeply cynical about commitments made for some time in the future - and particularly cynical about promises to do things after the election.

MPs who backed the rebel EU amendment understood this. It might be considered gesture politics but it is inconceivable that they did not make a calculated decision that it was worth putting a marker down now - even if the election is two years away.


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Categories: Precept

Could UKIP be the surprise election package?

by Paul on Politics, by political editor Paul Francis Saturday, April 6 2013

If UKIP was a band, it would probably be the type that comfortably fills mid-size venues but hasn't quite reached the point at which it is capable of selling out big stadium tours. There is a sense in which its supporters are a bit like fans who consider they are in on the next big thing but might actually be a bit regretful if it became a mainstream success.

But there's no doubt plenty of people think it is on the cusp of making the crossover from cult band to chart toppers. Its PR people like to talk about a buzz around the party, a bit like A and R men.

A measure of this progress will, of course, be how it fares at the county council elections.

And the leadership has its eye on Kent as somewhere it can create a few ripples. It is fielding 76 candidates out of 84 - a record number and judging by the unbridled spirit of optimism at the launch of its Kent manifesto on Friday night in Gravesend, many think County Hall will have its first elected UKIP county councillors come May 3.

Actually, the event was not so much a manifesto launch (not much was mentioned about Kent at all) as much as a rally designed to raise spirits for the battle ahead.

More than 300 activists and supporters crammed into a hotel room to listen to Nigel Farage deliver a characteristically flamboyant and colourful speech, in which he fired broadsides at all the mainstream parties (Cameron - "no-one will ever believe him again"; Clegg - "hopeless"; Osborne - "hopeless"; Angela Merkel - "more miserable in private than she is in public"; Miliband - "who cares?") and declaimed like a evangelical preacher that the party's time had come.

Say what you like about him, but he certainly knows how to find a key part of the party's anatomy (in the way it was said of Michael Heseltine and the Tories).

One of his quips about his critics was telling: "They're writing me off as a populist now!" because it touched on why the three mainstream parties are so concerned aboout UKIP.  It has successfully exploited the widespread disenchantment with the big parties among voters who think they all look the same and say the same. It is that disaffection that meant second place in the Eastleigh by-election was depicted as a victory.

The forthcoming elections come at a good time for UKIP: mid-term in the life of any government is a bad time to be going to the polls for those in power and UKIP is picking up support from many Tories in the shire counties that disapprove of the party's position on gay marriage and harbour fears over the impact of immigration.

It has certainly leapfrogged the Lib Dems as the preferred repository of the protest vote. More than that, there is the fact that they have a much more organised campaign and activists willing to trudge the streets with leaflets - the kind of foot soldiers every party needs. And it already has councillors in Tunbridge Wells.

So, you can understand why it feels bouyant. I think the issue, however, is that while it could significantly build on its share of the vote across Kent it may end up in second place in lots of areas, just falling short of victory.

Nigel Farage is typically robust in his assessment, saying it would be a major surprise if Kent - his home county - doesn't have UKIP county councillors next month. He won't say but the target areas are Thanet and Tunbridge Wells, with north Kent also in its sights.

When I asked him if he would have a bet on UKIP holding the balance of power at County Hall, he said he would have to look at the odds. But his smile suggested it may be something the party has contemplated as a possibility.

Such a result is the UKIP dream scenario and the Conservatives' nightmare, which accounts for the current jitters in Tory ranks.


Among UKIP's candidates is another defecting Tory.  Roger Latchford, who was at one point deputy Conservative leader of Thanet council, has defected and will contest the Birchington and Villages division in Thanet.

Another former Tory, Brian Ransley, once a cabinet member in Tunbridge Wells council until he lost his seat to the Lib Dems, is standing in Tunbridge Wells North.

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Categories: National Politics

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