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David Cameron: I'm never happier than when in the Westcountry

By Western Morning News  |  Posted: June 22, 2014

  • David Cameron with Western Morning News on Sunday's Graeme Demianyk at Downing Street. Pictures by Ki Price

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The Prime Minister tells Western Morning News on Sunday's Graeme Demianyk about being "never happier" than when on holiday in Cornwall - and promises to tackle the region's "frustrating" rural mobile phone signals and put "money where our mouth is" on post-Dawlish transport improvements

David Cameron makes a persuasive case for taking a holiday in Cornwall, a place he knows well.

“I love the seaside, I love the landscape, I like the people,” he says when the Western Morning News asks the Prime Minister what’s the peninsula’s enduring appeal.

“There are lots of places that mean a lot to me. I’ve been going to North Cornwall man and boy. I went as a child. I love surfing at Polzeath. I love walking the coastal path. I love the pubs. I like the beer. There’s nothing about it I don’t like.”

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The Prime Minister, his wife Samantha and their three children are almost certain to make their annual Cornwall “pilgrimage” later this summer.

He promised as much when the only mainline service to Cornwall collapsed at Dawlish, Devon, to underline the local campaign that wants the South West is “open for business” message writ large. Not that it’s too much of a drag for him.

The Camerons have visited Cornwall in each year of his premiership and often before (he used a copy of the Western Morning News to shield himself from cameramen when lounging on a Cornish beach as leader of the Opposition).

In 2010, Mrs Cameron gave birth to a girl, Florence, at Truro’s Royal’s Cornwall Hospital. Her middle name, Endellion, is a village in Cornwall close to where they stay. South Devon, too, has been a holiday favourite – Thurlestone is “really beautiful” while the area close to Bigbury can lay claim to “wonderful beaches”, he says.

It’s clear the time together in the Westcountry is cherished. I ask what entertainment the music and box-set loving PM might catch up with while on their “staycation”, and you sense he isn’t feverishly compiling a summer playlist.

“In Cornwall, I’m very active,” he says. “I spend a lot of time on the beach with the children. The thing I want to catch up on is spending time with the little ones. They love it so much, and they’re very happy there. There’s time they don’t see enough of their Dad. It should be a week I see a lot of them.”

Maybe too active? “Last year I managed to put my back out because I was playing tennis, I was playing golf, I was swimming, I was surfing, I was walking, I was running. So many things in one day I rather over-did it.”

We’re talking in Downing Street on a sunny Thursday, hours before England’s defeat to Uruguay, and a little wistfulness creeps in. That can happen to anyone wearing a suit in the capital when thinking about Cornwall.

He says: “I’m just never happier than when having a barbecue at Daymer Bay, at low tide, and looking across the estuary at Padstow. It’s just one of the most beautiful places. When I think about it I can picture the scene.”

But he makes clear his obvious love for the region has not blinded him to the struggles faced by one of the poorest parts of the country with a notoriously second-rate transport network, which can be masked to London politicians by its picture postcard idyll.

In a wide-ranging interview, Mr Cameron says mobile and broadband connections are a “must-have” for a remote region attempting to re-tool its economy, and an issue the Government has “got to crack”.

He concedes this year’s winter storms that flooded large parts of Somerset, Devon and Cornwall has led to a re-think of priorities over defence spending amid concern rural areas get a raw deal.

Tourism, the Westcountry’s mainstay industry, has been supported by the Government but Britain has to “advertise itself better” to compete with cheap overseas destinations boasting guaranteed sunshine.

The Prime Minister pledged the Government would “put its money where its mouth is” if “answers can be found” to improve the notorious A303 and the Dawlish line, and the region will get a “a good share” of future transport spending.

With Devon, Cornwall and Somerset a key election battleground, Mr Cameron says dealing with the UKIP insurgency means he has to “win people’s trust back who have left voting Conservative” – an appreciable shift in tone from 2006 when he described followers as “fruitcakes, loonies and closet racists”.

Some in the tourism industry have criticised the coalition Government for not “getting” the industry, an argument Mr Cameron dismisses. He points to a speech he gave dedicated to tourism, unlike his predecessors, in his first year as PM about how it should no longer be deemed a “second-class service”.

Critics will point to not introducing more daylight saving, and that a proposal to make the bank holiday dates more tourism-friendly was rejected. But Mr Cameron argues millions invested in the overseas “Great” marketing campaign has generated much more off the back of the Olympics and Royal wedding.

So why will families holiday at home when you can get a cheap flight abroad?

“We have got to advertise what we have got better. The re-opening of the line at Dawlish was a great moment to shine a spotlight on the Westcountry, and encourage people to go.

“Also, tourism and holidays is a very competitive market. As a working dad with a working wife and three young children, holidays are so precious every moment has got to be precious.

“What I love about Cornwall is everyone has really stepped up to make it a great holiday. The pubs are good, the food is good, the guides you get for things to do. To make the most of what the Westcountry has got, everyone has to make it a really good offer. Which I think is what is happening.”

Tourism is vital to the South West economy, but not the only game in town. Excitement is growing around emerging creative, technology and green energy sectors. Yet the largely rural region still struggles with poor mobile phone connections and broadband – somewhat of a stumbling block if the Westcountry is to be reborn as a Silicon Valley.

“This is a really big issue for people all over the country - the ‘not-spots’,” he says of mobile phone coverage. “It’s not good enough to say here’s the mobile coverage for the whole country. You have got to recognise a lot of people are making important calls while they are on the move. We do need to improve the coverage of the mobile phone signal.”

The Government plans to provide mobile coverage to 60,000 properties in “black spots” before the end of 2015,

Mr Cameron has also ordered ministers to get mobile coverage improved after getting frustrated by patchy network access in rural areas.

Networks have been asked to increase coverage around A and B roads, with the Government also anxious to ensure coverage is “roaming” - where users are automatically switched to an alternative network.

Meanwhile, some £1 billion-plus is also earmarked for broadband.

“For rural communities not being connected to super-fast broadband is a bit like not being connected to the road network. It’s that bad. So much work is being done online and that it really is a ‘must-have’. We’ve got to crack this.”

The Prime Minister has witnessed problems here first-hand, and at times of high political drama. Last August, Mr Cameron cut short his holiday in Cornwall to deal with the mounting Syria crisis. In 2011, the same thing happened as the Gaddafi regime crumbled in Libya.

He says poor technology “affects Prime Ministers making important calls wherever they are, but it affects everybody”. But has his phone dropped out in Cornwall when on a call to President Obama?

Mr Cameron says: “As I go down a hill into Polzeath, I know exactly which bit of the road I lose my signal. So it is a problem. I know where to go to get a signal, but it can be very frustrating.”

The wish-list of regional transport improvement projects includes upgrading the ever-slow A303 cross-country road to London, which ministers are examining, and an additional rail line to the vulnerable Dawlish route, which rail bosses are also examining.

Mr Cameron argues there is progress. While the electrification of the Great Western line does not go to Cornwall it shortens journey times, and long-awaited road improvements including the South Devon link road and dualling the A30 in Cornwall on Bodmin Moor have attracted “proper” Government money.

He says: “The A303 is important – it’s a really key route into the Westcountry. And for many years the problems around Stonehenge have created long tail-backs and problems. So there’s a proper study being done.

“This is a Government that has put its money where its mouth is when it comes to infrastructure and if answers can be found we will do so again.”

He goes on: “The Dawlish line review is a proper review. The most important thing was to fix the problem, fix it on time, and get it done. That’s been done. But I meant what I said: we are genuinely looking at the alternatives and to see how we can build in extra resilience in the future. So there are things happening.”

Many in the region travel on an unreliable transport network and then cast envious looks east to see billions committed to high-speed HS2 rail. There is a sense of the Westcountry missing out. It is a point the Prime Minister is anxious to address.

“Three times more is being spent on road and rail schemes other than HS2 in the next parliament. And the South West will get a good share of that. We haven’t solved every problem but I totally recognise for the South West connectivity of all sorts is vital.”

At the heart of concerns following the region’s flooding is that “town” is considered worth protecting more than “country”. Locals have said this resulted in vast swathes of rural Devon, Cornwall and Somerset missing out on dredging, barriers and other flood defence measures.

Mr Cameron, who said “money is no object” in paying for the clear-up, argues that the Government has stepped up. The Somerset Levels are being dredged after years of local clamour. The South West has received £25 million to repair flood defences and almost £40 million for road repairs and other grants.

But while “partnership” funding is attracting more non-state money to pay for new flood protection, he admits the so-called cost-benefit-ratio that favours urban areas is under review.

“We are going to look at that to make sure the schemes that are necessary go ahead. After you have one of these bad flooding events you need to sit down and re-look at the map, re-look at the schemes, what should go ahead, what shouldn’t go ahead.”

Recent Conservative Party publicity has signalled a “brighter future”. So are we entering the “sunlit uplands” that Mr Cameron promised as along ago as 2006 under a Tory government (albeit now a coalition)? He chuckles at the reference.

“I want people to know the point of this plan is not just to fix the wiring under the bonnet, it’s actually to take this country to a better place. I want people to sense if we continue with this programme of fixing the problems, then there will be good apprenticeships for my kids. A good job. A welfare system that rewards work and makes sure that I get a decent pension when I retire.”

A note of caution is offered against “complacency”. “We’ve still got too many people who want to work who can’t, and too many parts of the country that are not feeling the full benefit of recovery.”

The South West will be a key battleground if the Conservatives are to win a majority in next year’s general election. A bloody one too. A quarter of the Tory targets are Lib Dem MPs in the region. So why would a Lib Dem voter switch now?

“The heart of this plan is a Conservative Prime Minister and a Conservative Chancellor taking long-term difficult decisions which are paying off for the country and the Westcountry. And the best thing we can do is stick with the plan and stick with the people who have delivered it.”

UKIP’s vote share in the Westcountry is blamed for denying the Conservatives a handful of important seats in the South West in 2010. Nigel Farage’s party are likely to be more of a threat in 2015. How does he deal with that? Do you talk about them or not talk about them?

“We’ve got to address the concerns people have. They want to see an immigration system that’s under control. They want to see a proper choice for our future in Europe. They want to see a welfare system that rewards work. I think we need to explain if we get these things right then UKIP’s message, which I think is quite a pessimistic one about Britain’s future, isn’t right.”

So you won’t be calling UKIP-ers fruitcakes again? “I’m very clear that I want to win people’s trust back who have left voting Conservative, and are voting for a minor party. I want to win them back on the basis I respect their views and I want their support to take the country forward.”

David Cameron’s music playlist

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“I’m a bit of a fan of Poliça. That’s very good on the iPad at the moment.”

US alternative rock band

“Tom Odell I think is very good.”

Doom-laden singer-songwriter in the early Radiohead mould

“I’m still a big Mumford fan – I’ve probably over-played that.”

English folk given a pop makeover and taken global by Mumford and Sons

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  • hstmtu4000  |  June 23 2014, 11:33AM

    He also said and I quote " South Devon, too, has been a holiday favourite – Thurlestone is "really beautiful" while the area close to Bigbury can lay claim to "wonderful beaches", he says.

  • robzrob  |  June 22 2014, 1:53PM

    Next time you're down here, Mr C, come to Long Rock (not too far from Polzeath/Padstow) and see how those bullies, Cornwall Council & Network Rail, have conspired together to block access to our beach.

    |   3
  • grahamcoad  |  June 22 2014, 11:01AM

    David Cameron didn't say he was "Never happier than when he was in the West Country" He was specifically referring to Cornwall where he regularly has holidays. Cornwall is not "the West Country" it's the "Far South west" or simply Cornwall.