Previous Section Index Home Page

Post Office closures are an emotive subject, but we need to examine the facts if we are to proceed logically. At present, we as taxpayers subsidise the national network to the tune of £3.5 million a week. That level of subsidy is clearly unsustainable, and some offices will have to close across the UK. That money could be invested in
3 Apr 2008 : Column 965
schools, hospitals or local policing. Additionally, our shopping habits are changing and we are increasingly using the internet, the telephone and other outlets to purchase services and things we used to buy at the post office. New technology and the increasing preference for direct payments and online services have, and will continue to have, a significant effect on how post offices provide services to their customers.

We should not forget that locally, we have had some real successes in relation to post offices in recent years. I particularly want to thank the Co-op for its work to ensure that many post offices in Telford stay open. Three post offices have moved into Co-op stores: that has been extremely successful, and I am sure that similar moves have been successful elsewhere across the country. In Oakengates, Trench and Dawley the post office service is provided in the Co-op, where the environment is much better than that in the old offices. Post office services will remain at those three sites, and we will also be keeping services at Horsehay, Ironbridge, Brookside, Madely, Sutton Hill, Overdale and Telford town centre.

Some people have suggested that I voted in this House for the closure of post offices. That is absolute nonsense, and a display of the worst kind of political opportunism. The Opposition motion that we debated would merely have postponed the consultation exercise while options such as having local councils taking over post office services were examined.

In that debate, the Opposition made it clear that they would provide no new resources for post offices, and they were not even able to commit to maintaining the existing Government subsidy over the next decade. Also, I have seen no evidence that the Conservative-run Telford and Wrekin council will step in to save post office branches in Telford. If it were going to do so, it should give us the details of the plans and the precise amount of the council tax increase that would have to be imposed.

Mr. John Randall (Uxbridge) (Con): Does the post office that the hon. Gentleman is trying to save make a profit?

David Wright: I am meeting the postmaster of that office next Tuesday to look at the books. If it does make a profit, we will make the case that it should stay open and I shall work with local residents to that end.

I recognise that post offices provide a critical resource for many communities, and we must make sure that the network is both viable and sustainable. Sustainability is the crucial element: without funding from this Labour Government, thousands more branches would have been under threat and there would have been thousands more closures.

Of course, thousands of post offices closed under the previous Conservative Government, and as far as I am aware there was no compensation for sub-postmasters then. At least, they have received some compensation in recent years, and there has been a proper national debate about how we should move forward in respect of post offices. The Opposition campaign to keep open every post office branch in the country is a sham.

The third issue I want to raise is Ironbridge, which is a world heritage site. I am chairman of the all-party world heritage sites group, and I am very proud to have in my constituency the Ironbridge gorge, which was
3 Apr 2008 : Column 966
inscribed in the UNESCO world heritage site list in 1986. The inscription relates the area’s role in the birth of the industrial revolution, and even people who have not visited will know the iconic image of the iron bridge over the River Severn.

The world heritage site is also a living community, with a resident population of about 4,000. They run businesses and live in the area, and there are also various museums along the gorge. The gorge itself attracts about 750,000 visitors a year, and about 300,000 pay to visit one or more of the 10 museum sites. The iron bridge was completed in 1779. As a symbol of the industrial revolution, it is recognised around the world. It is owned by the local council, under the guardianship of English Heritage.

The gorge is one of the UK’s most important visitor attractions. Through various sources, the nation has spent tens of millions of pounds of public money over the years to make sure that it acts as a tourist magnet and an engine for the local economy. The gorge is therefore incredibly important, but it is under threat from land instability caused by a combination of natural geology, past mining activity and the fact that its hillsides have been loaded with tipped waste, buildings and infrastructure.

That instability is exacerbated by the flooding on the River Severn that happens every two or three years. A flood barrier has been established for the Wharfage, but the floods still cause significant erosion along the gorge. Generally, the land movement is quite gradual, but the times when it has been great and fairly catastrophic have resulted in the partial blockage of the river and caused the destruction of buildings and property. There is always the possibility that a blockage of the river could cause major flooding and damage, both upstream and downstream. Moreover, life and property could be put at risk if the clearing of that blockage caused a rapid release of water.

A lot of work has been done in the gorge, much of it in recent times. Studies of the scale and extent of the flooding problem have been carried out, and they have identified the areas at greatest risk. Ground investigations have been undertaken by the council and land movement is being carefully monitored. The local council and the Government have acted in a partnership to invest in stabilisation, at Jiggers bank in 2002 and at the Lloyds phase 1 in 2007.

Residents are aware of the problem. An information pack has been made available so that they can report incidents of land instability or any problems that they might encounter on their property. There is also an emergency plan covering the worst-case scenarios of what might happen in the gorge, but there is a need for further investment to ensure that the environment is stabilised.

The local council, in partnership with the Government, has undertaken a cost-benefit analysis, and it is estimated that we need to spend about £86 million to ensure that the gorge is safe in the long term. If we delay, the cost may rise to more than £100 million—an enormous amount of money, and one that the local authority on its own clearly cannot come up with. I am therefore working with the local council to try to lobby Ministers to ensure that we get a fair share of resources so that the required works can be carried out.

3 Apr 2008 : Column 967

I shall set out a list of the works that need to be done. We need to complete the stabilisation of the Lloyds and Lloyds Head on opposite sides of the River Severn; we need to stabilise the hillside and rebuild the road between Jackfield tile museum and Maws craft centre; and we need to complete the ground investigations in central Ironbridge, reconstruct the riverside wall along the Wharfage, stabilise Lloyds Coppice and carry out work to stabilise the Lloyds phase 3.

That is a significant amount of work. The key issue is that, when a national Government put a site forward for world heritage site status, they accept that the UNESCO charter requires them, as the state party, to ensure that the site is preserved for future generations. It is crucial that we invest in the Ironbridge gorge. It is a significant asset for the nation, and an iconic site that ranks alongside all the other incredible world heritage sites around the globe. I hope that Ministers will look closely at the partnership work being undertaken to secure the gorge’s long-term future as a national asset.

Finally, I want to say something about the importance of manufacturing for the west midlands. I am delighted that Advantage West Midlands has published its manufacturing support strategy for the next three years. It is an excellent document and it outlines how important manufacturing is for the area. Manufacturing is the largest wealth generator of the west midlands sector, accounting for about 27 per cent. of the regional gross value added—23 per cent. directly and an estimated further 4 per cent. from its supply chains.

During the early 1980s, when I left school—some Opposition Members will find that comment somewhat surprising—unemployment in Telford was running at just under 10 per cent. I am very proud to say that we have ensured that unemployment has come down over the past few years—it is now running at about 3 per cent.—but to give credit where it is due, one of the most important initiatives in Telford was undertaken by a partnership between a Conservative Government and a Labour council: the designation of the enterprise zone. That extremely important initiative secured cross-party support at the time, and it did a lot for Telford. We also secured the connection to the motorway network, with the opening of the M54.

Those two decisions in the 1980s were very important for Telford, and they were taken in the long-term interests of the town. I should like to thank the politicians who were involved for making those decisions, because they ensured that, in the long term, we were able to grow the manufacturing sector in Telford and draw new companies into Telford. In fact, we were a focal point for Japanese investment for many years. Indeed, we still have a large number of Japanese companies, such as Ricoh and Maxell, in the town, providing thousands of jobs.

We now need to continue to support the manufacturing sector in the region. Such manufacturing will be connected particularly to car manufacture and engineering, but increasingly, in Telford, we are looking at high-tech jobs and innovation. That is why I very much welcome the commitment in the recently published document to the technology corridor between Wolverhampton and Telford. It is crucial that we ensure that we have jobs growth along that M54 corridor and that organisations, such as the university of Wolverhampton, are party to supporting
3 Apr 2008 : Column 968
manufacturing, so that we can grow new technology and innovation business and build the skills base in Telford.

Supporting the concept of the city region—the idea is to connect some of the main areas across the central spine of the west midlands into a city region structure—will be crucial. Some clarion voices locally in Telford have suggested that we should not get involved in the city region. In my view, that would be a complete disaster. In the longer term, resources to support manufacturing, the skills sector and training will be decided by organisations such as the city region.

I fully support the Conservative council’s decision to continue to subscribe to the city region—a policy that was started by the Labour council before last year’s elections and continued by the Conservative council. I very much welcome that, and I urge the council to continue to ignore some of the clarion voices and the doom merchants who suggest that we should withdraw from the city region. It is important that we invest in it and that our skills and manufacturing strategy develops on a regional basis. On that note, I will go off in search of Easter eggs.

2.23 pm

Simon Hughes (North Southwark and Bermondsey) (LD): A belated happy Easter to you, Madam Deputy Speaker, from me, too.

I start with a word about the date of the Adjournment and the recess. Unusually, this year, the nation is slightly confused by these things, because the good old western Christian Church, which fixes its Easter according to certain risings of the sun, I think, and the moon, has had its earliest Easter for about 80 or 90 years—I gather that it will not be as early again for another 80 or 90 years. This year, Easter was on 23 March, and technically, it could only have been one day earlier than that. Obviously, it almost coincided with the first day of spring this year. I notice just in passing that, in 2011, it will be on 24 April, which must be pretty well the latest date that it can ever be, too.

I have no objection to the fact that Easter moves around—it adds a bit of variety and interest in an otherwise over-routine world—but there is an issue that affects our conducting business well. My hon. Friend the Member for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine (Sir Robert Smith), who helps me on House matters and directly shadows the Deputy Leader of the House, would have been here, except that he is not here, by permission, for a very good reason: his children are on their school holidays, and he and his wife have decided to take their children, who are in London today as opposed to Scotland, to see “The Lord of the Rings”. There is an issue for Members and children with regard to the coincidence of our sitting times with school holidays. That is not an easy issue to resolve. Clearly, there should be a break at Christmas, at or around Easter and in the summer, but when we plan our recesses, I would be grateful if the Deputy Leader of the House were to ask her officials to try to make our terms coincide with the bulk of school term times and holidays around the country. We are catering for four countries, which have different education systems.

When I asked my hon. Friend to give me an idea of the school holidays in Scotland, he told me that some Easter holidays—for example, in Edinburgh and
3 Apr 2008 : Column 969
Aberdeenshire—started on 21 March and run until 7 April. The Glasgow ones do not start until 7 April and run until 18 April. The Dundee ones started on 31 March and run until 11 April. When I asked my hon. Friend the Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Mr. Williams) what the position was in Wales, he pointed out that there is a common view that the holidays run from 21 March to 7 April, but the summer holidays vary. Of course, some Scottish summer holidays start as early as the end of June and run until the middle of August. Obviously, this would need the consensus of the House, but I would be grateful if the Leader of the House were to get officials to draw up a matrix of school holiday plans—they vary, but they can generally be foreshadowed—to try to ensure that our term times match, as far as possible, school term times and holidays.

If we are trying to make the House family-friendly—colleagues have school-age children—we need to ensure, as far as possible, that our term times and holidays coincide with the maximum number of school term times and holidays. I think that that is a reasonable request, and it has been made by colleagues over the years. My right hon. Friend the Member for Gordon (Malcolm Bruce) has made it often, and he was concerned about the issue when he had young children, as many colleagues have. I hope that we can plan to ensure that we do our job for our families as well as for our constituents.

Mr. Burns: I find the hon. Gentleman’s comments over the past few minutes just bizarre. I can only put them down to the fact that he does not have schoolchildren. To give credit to the right hon. Member for Derby, South (Margaret Beckett) and the late Robin Cook, that is precisely what they did. They dovetailed our term times and recesses with the school holidays, by and large, for England and Wales. Usually, it has worked extremely well. There is a problem with Scotland. There always will be a problem with Scotland, because the term times and summer holidays there are completely out of sync with the rest of the UK. It is a little churlish to give the impression that nothing has been done, when—I hate to admit it—the Government have made our hours with regard to school holidays extremely family-friendly.

Simon Hughes: Neither was I being churlish, nor did I say or imply that nothing had been done. Indeed, I indicated that the Government have tried to deal with the issue, but the situation could be even better. For example, a week’s difference now would have given more people a coincident school holiday and break here. It certainly needs to be addressed for colleagues from Scotland, for whom school holidays run throughout July as well as the bulk of August. Some of us have argued at length over many years that we should not have a three-month summer holiday. It is nonsense that we should break for so long. If we had a shorter summer holiday, one of the problems could be more easily addressed.

Mr. Randall: As a parent of three children who are still at school, I understand what the hon. Gentleman is saying, but does he not realise that hundreds of our constituents do not have the luxury of recesses? They have to pick their holidays. Some teachers have different school holidays from their children, if their children’s school is in a different local authority area. We are actually in quite a privileged position.

3 Apr 2008 : Column 970

Simon Hughes: Of course, I am not pretending that the issue does not affect other people. If we in this country are moving towards having five weeks’ annual holiday, one would hope that that holiday could always be taken. Normally, families can, by and large, choose when they take their holidays, although teachers cannot. There are other people, too, whose holidays are inflicted on them, as it were, and who must take their holiday at times entirely connected with their profession. I have made my point. This is not a self-interested question; I just request that the issue be considered in the light of continuing requests from colleagues who think that we can do better. We have made progress, but we can do better still.

Let me turn to matters that do not affect the House as directly. I want to mention local issues, as the hon. Member for Telford (David Wright) did. There are three local issues on my list, one of which—post offices—is on everybody’s local list. Yesterday was the closing date for responses to the consultation on post offices across Greater London. As I said in Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Question Time earlier today, eight closures are proposed in my borough, four of which are in my constituency, and I have made representations. It is also proposed that a Crown post office be changed to a non-Crown post office and moved from an established Crown post office site on Borough high street to an as yet unopened—and, I think, entirely unbuilt—Costcutter store. That is taking trust a bit too far; it is cost-cutting with a vengeance. We might base our objection to the proposal on the fact that we do not believe that the building will be there until we see it, which might be a good reason for objecting.

I want to make two points on the subject that partly tie in with an earlier interchange. I believe that three of the four post offices for which closure is proposed in my patch are now profit-making. They include the one at Dockhead on the riverside in Bermondsey, where there is family commitment and where the postmistress is extremely keen to continue, and the one on Ilderton road, which is on the Bermondsey-Lewisham border near Millwall football ground. A family have been running that post office since 1979, and they are keen to continue. There is a third on Maddock way, which is on the Brandon estate, near the Southwark-Lambeth border. It probably was not profit-making, but it has a new postmistress who believes that she has just turned the business around. She wants to stay there, because she believes that the business is viable. The fourth one in East street has not been profit-making, and the owner has been trying to get out of the business for some time, but the Post Office is resisting.

Next Section Index Home Page