The complete excavation of Chester’s Roman amphitheatre was a bold idea thrown up at a question time event where political gladiators went into combat but no blood was spilt.
With the general election looming, the city’s four MP wannabes fielded questions from members of Chester Business Club who hosted the hustings event at Chester’s Crowne Plaza Hotel.
Asked about their vision for Chester, the Lib Dems’ Bob Thompson said the excavation of the buried half of the amphitheatre would attract visitors to the city.
Mr Thompson, who joked that he had the city’s dirt under his fingernails after taking part in a dig in 1974, said: “The amphitheatre must be excavated. It’s one of the country’s jewels, it’s a hidden jewel and it must be excavated.”
In terms of the economy, the Conservatives’ Mr Mosley used a similar phrase when he described Chester as the ‘jewel in the crown of the north west’. On the tourism front there was the exciting prospect of excavating a Roman camp underneath the Dean’s Field and the emphasis should be on luring people to the city for longer breaks, rather than day-trippers. Investment had recently taken place in the Cathedral at Height tour, the new Islands attraction at Chester Zoo, and the historic Walls.
Labour’s Mr Matheson agreed there was ‘a lot to be proud of’ about Chester and starting point was ‘strong’. But UK tourism was too focused on London, Oxford and Cambridge – and the net must be widened.
Ukip candidate Steve Ingram, who claimed the number of overseas visitors had dwindled, attacked the council for wasting money on consultancy fees for projects that had never happened.
The Northgate development
Candidates were asked about the Northgate Development retail scheme, with Mr Thompson and Ukip’s Steve Ingram both raising concerns about the danger of turning Chester into ‘clone town’.
Mr Ingram, who claimed his party would offer meaningful engagement and even referenda on controversial projects, said: “With regards Northgate, I personally think we are heading in the wrong direction if we just want a whole series of monolithic, modern buildings that destroy the culture and heritage of the city.”
By contrast Mr Mosley, who was elected Tory MP for Chester in 2010, was full of enthusiasm.
“Go to Northgate and you will see the diggers building a new theatre, building a new library, building a new cinema, which is the first part of the Northgate Development,” he said.
Labour opponent Chris Matheson was also supportive, but cautioned: “Northgate is the centrepiece but we cannot allow it to crush our small businesses, particularly the market traders.” He also stressed the need for good access to the city centre from the new bus station at Gorse Stacks.
The University of Chester
On the question of whether the growth of the University of Chester was good or bad for Chester, all agreed the university was an asset but there was a difference of emphasis.
Mr Matheson said: “I would like to see the university take a more pro-active approach when problems arise. At the moment there is a sense that anything that happens involving students from the university off campus isn’t anything to do with the university.”
Traffic congestion was raised as big issue for city businesses.
Mr Mosley called for a third road bridge over the Dee. Mr Matheson wanted better public transport. And Mr Ingram suggested a debate was needed on ‘how much growth’ Chester could take in future because once outlying areas were developed the city may end up as ‘something resembling Manchester’ with implications for traffic.
The Lib Dems’ Bob Thompson offered an innovative if costly vision. “We have to take a leap of faith, we have to be ambitious, we have to stand out,” he said. “What I have proposed is we need a tram system in Chester.”
The four went on to answer several questions on the banks, education and the prospect of another coalition government. Mr Matheson, whose candidacy is supported by his employers at the Unite trade union, was asked where his loyalties lie. To a round of applause, he replied: “My loyalties lie with Chester.”