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17 Jun 2008 : Column 224WH—continued

Even the shadow Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform, the hon. Member for Rutland and Melton (Alan Duncan), has said in a debate on the post office network that

I understand the fundamental premise that no one wants their local post office to close, but it is important to see the changes in their proper context. Even after the programme, the network will still be larger than the major high street banks combined.

Mark Pritchard: Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Thomas: Not with the time that is available, as I want to answer the questions of the hon. Member for Ludlow.

As the hon. Member for Ludlow has indicated, at least 500 new outreach services will be introduced, mainly in rural areas, including seven mobile services in his constituency. They are a cost-effective means of ensuring continued access to post office services in rural areas, and research shows that customer satisfaction levels for them are comparable to those for traditional post offices. The Government have also committed additional funding of £1.7 billion up to 2011, including £150 million per year to support non-commercial post offices. The hon. Gentleman asked whether the European Commission was dictating how many post offices should close or how much subsidy should be provided. Let me make it clear that a maximum level of state aid to subsidise post offices is not included, for example, in the European postal services directive, which has been one concern. Decisions about the level of subsidy were not part of some sort of price agreed with the Commission
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about the number of closures. Those decisions remain very much the preserve of the UK Government.

The access criteria laid down by the Government are designed to ensure a national network with reasonable access to post office services throughout the country. Broadly speaking, most people should be within one mile of a post office outlet in urban areas and within three miles in rural communities. Without the access criteria, many more rural communities would be left without access to post office services, as only the least used branches are closed.

Before change proposals are published, Post Office Ltd discusses them with local authorities and sub-postmasters. On average, 12.5 per cent. of proposals have been changed as a result of detailed input from key stakeholders such as Postwatch before the local public consultation. As the hon. Gentleman indicated, a number of closure decisions have been withdrawn, but I accept that some, though not as many, additional branches have been proposed for closure.

There has been much discussion about the closure of allegedly profitable branches, but people should be cautious when talking about what is profitable. When one takes into account the remuneration that must be paid to the sub-postmaster, as well as the Post Office’s central support costs, three out of four post offices lose money. The Government have encouraged the Post Office to explore fully any serious proposal from a local authority to maintain a service where a branch is scheduled to close, although it would want to ensure that its costs would be met in full and that there would be some certainty for the future. Such arrangements would also need to be state aid compatible.

Mr. Dunne: The example of Essex county council has received much attention in the media recently. Will the
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Minister confirm that local authorities are being provided with no additional subsidy from the Government, and that local authorities offering to take on post offices are therefore proposing to replace the subsidy that the Government provide?

Mr. Thomas: I can confirm that no additional subsidy is being made available by the Government to the local authorities concerned. Such decisions to get involved are very much for them to take.

The hon. Gentleman also asked about the card account, and I recognise that there are concerns about that. He might know that the Department for Work and Pensions is managing the tender process for the new card account. Clearly, it would not be appropriate for me to comment on the outcome of that process, but we expect that there will be an announcement on the successful bidder in the coming months, in accordance with the usual procurement rules.

Looking to the future, the Post Office needs to keep developing new products and new reasons for customers to come through the door. There has been progress in that direction, with the Post Office emerging as the largest foreign currency dealer in the country, developing car and household insurance products and providing broadband in association with British Telecom. It is also actively exploring a range of new business opportunities, and is developing and trialling new approaches to providing and delivering services to local authorities.

The future of the network cannot be about turning back the clock; it must be about developing new products and new reasons for customers to use post offices. As I said at the outset, the process is not easy and there will inevitably be considerable concerns in communities faced with the prospect of local branch closures. However, doing nothing in the face of declining business and mounting losses simply is not an option.

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Regeneration of Featherstone

1 pm

Jon Trickett (Hemsworth) (Lab): I am delighted to address the House under your chairmanship, Mr. Cummings. I know that because of your background, you have a great affinity with mining areas and former mining villages. Featherstone is one of several communities in west Yorkshire that I have the privilege to represent. I am pleased to see a distinguished and diligent Minister in his place to respond to the debate. I shall seek to persuade the Government that Featherstone has particular regeneration needs, and I hope that he will be able to address them.

When I first arrived in my constituency, in which there are about 23 villages or small townships, the shadow of the strike and the subsequent closure of all the collieries there was still strongly felt in almost every village. I have a strong image in my mind of the devastation that those terrible closures wrought on those communities. The work of regenerating them is still far from finished, but I am pleased to say that many villages, small towns, communities and neighbourhoods are looking forward to real growth and regeneration. The struggle has been hard but rewarding.

When considering regeneration in Featherstone, there are people who say that the glass is half full, but also those who say that it is half empty. Whichever view one takes, the process of regeneration is far from complete, for a number of reasons to do with Featherstone’s history and geographical location. It stands some way from the M62, the M1 and the A1, which form the main road network around the communities that I represent. Many of the others are much closer to the motorway and therefore easier to regenerate.

Featherstone is still the sixth most deprived ward in the Wakefield area, and some parts of the town are in the most deprived 5 per cent. in the whole country. That statistic speaks volumes. A lot has been done, some of which I shall mention, but the people of Featherstone and I will not be satisfied until regeneration becomes a self-sustaining process and there is a virtuous circle of regeneration. We are not there yet. That is why I wish to argue the case for Featherstone becoming what will be called a coalfield action partnership area. I would like CAP status to be applied to Featherstone.

Let me recount work that has been done on three matters, the first of which is jobs. When I first arrived in Featherstone on the proud day when I had been selected as the Labour candidate, I drove through the town past a road that appeared to go to nowhere—indeed, that was exactly what it did. The road was part of Green lane and went to where the colliery had been. It had been paid for with European money. It was a wonderful road, beautifully tarmacked and with street lights and so on, but it went nowhere. It went to where the pit had been, where by that time there was only a generating station and a lot of weeds. With other people, I persuaded English Partnerships and Yorkshire Forward to take a risk and build some empty units to see whether we could put jobs there. About 10 years later, I am delighted to say that there are more than 2,000 jobs on that site, and 300,000 sq ft of properties have been developed there. It is a fantastic success for the area.

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A local entrepreneur. Mr. Ian Cushnie, who runs a firm called CMS, got a small amount of European regional development fund money, mainly through his own sweat, toil and ingenuity. On a site in the centre of Featherstone, he built eight industrial units, most of which are now filled, and a large warehouse. We have also had £2.2 million awarded to the Chesney centre, which contains some small starter units for small businesses, office space and facilities for training and community development. I am sure that you have seen plenty of that sort of thing in the area that you represent, Mr. Cummings.

To show that we have excellence in the local economy, I shall mention Copley’s farm shop. Not everybody might imagine that there could be a farm shop of great excellence in a former colliery village such as Featherstone, but Copley’s, a small family business that I believe was started only five years ago, now employs 22 people. It has been so successful that it has been acknowledged by Claridge’s, of all places, as the best farm shop in the country. That proves the excellence of the local staff and work force. I do not know whether you have ever been to Claridge’s, Mr. Cummings. I certainly have not, but I might well go. If you are ever passing Hemsworth or Featherstone, you would be more than welcome to come to Copley’s farm shop.

We have been busy trying to create jobs in the Featherstone area, but questions remain. What kind of jobs are being created? How many of the 2,000 or so people in jobs on Green lane live in Featherstone and how many have been brought in from outside? There is not enough of a link between the new jobs and the employment of the people who live in the area. I see from the statistics that the number of people living in Featherstone who are, unfortunately, on income support is 50 per cent. higher than the average for the country. That tends to indicate that the new jobs that have come do not pay very well and may not be of the same quality as those that existed when the coal mines were open. We need to think about that.

The second issue that I wish to mention is education, which in many ways is the key in coalfield areas. As you know, Mr. Cummings, levels of educational attainment in those areas vary. In the Wakefield area, of which Featherstone is part, a significantly lower than average number of people in the working population have level 3 qualifications. It is important that that educational deficit be addressed so that we can overcome the problems of low pay and of poor access to the employment opportunities that the new economy is creating. In particular, the deficit reflects the poor skills base among young people who are not in education, employment or training—the so-called NEET group. The proportion of young people not in any of those three categories is higher in Featherstone than in many other places. That is why we have put a lot of work into ensuring that there is investment in education in the area. I have mentioned the £2.2 million awarded to Chesney’s, where there is adult education.

Almost all the primary schools in the area have had significant additional funding in the past 10 years, but I shall focus on high schools to show how much the Government have invested in the Featherstone area. St. Wilfrid’s, which is a Catholic school in north Featherstone, has benefited from £6.25 million for major refurbishment and remodelling, and it draws in people from a wider
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area than just Featherstone. Featherstone high school, which has now become Featherstone technology college, has received even more money. There was a major refurbishment costing £2 million when it became a technology college, a new sports centre cost £3 million, upgrading the existing facilities cost £500,000, securing technology college status cost £250,000 and a new swimming pool cost £1.3 million. Altogether, about £7.33 million was spent on the campus. That is a demonstration of the confidence that both the Government and the local council, Wakefield metropolitan district council, have in the future of Featherstone. They are optimistic that Featherstone has a promising future.

As I said, £7.33 million has been spent on Featherstone technical college and a further £6.2 million at St. Wilfrid’s school. The technology college, which is the former high school, is repaying every year the confidence that the Government had in it. Every year, we are seeing better results than it was able to achieve the year before. We have broken records at the college in terms of the number of young people achieving exam passes. This year, we expect to get to about 38 per cent. of students—I think that that is the figure—achieving five GCSEs, including maths and English. If so, it will be another record-breaking year and it will be thanks to the brilliant leadership of the head teacher, Stuart Wilson, together with the staff, parents and obviously the young people themselves in producing these fantastic results. After all, education and training is the way for people to take advantage of the new economy being created in our country.

Along with jobs and education, the third area that I wanted to mention is housing. When the Conservatives left office and Labour took over, a great deal of the council housing stock was in disrepair. Many council houses—indeed, most houses in the country—had been left unfit after 18 years of Conservative Administration. It is true to say that Wakefield, which previously had been a series of smaller urban district councils and rural councils, had always looked after its properties, but the fact is that, after all those years, much needed to be done.

Since the council housing went into Wakefield and District Housing, which is run by Kevin Dodd, £14 million has been spent on housing in Featherstone alone, putting right the effects of the many years of neglect. It is true to say that that work has been done rapidly. Occasionally the workmen have perhaps focused on getting the work done as quickly as possible, and from time to time that has caused irritation and frustration for the householder involved. However, when the work is finished, it is fantastic for the householder to have heating, a new kitchen, new electricity supply and all the other things that are being fitted. Clearly, £14.3 million is a huge amount of money.

There is also a master plan for the town that proposes the building of new housing. As we know, the nation as a whole needs much more new housing. Certainly, it would be welcomed by many people in Featherstone if some new housing was to be built in the town, to increase the housing mix. We are very interested to see how that construction process develops.

There is one very dark black spot in housing in Featherstone, which is the former Coal Board houses on Girnhill lane. As I am sure you know, Mr. Cummings,
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when the pits were closed, Mrs. Thatcher and the Coal Board decided to sell off the Coal Board houses and they were duly sold off. The houses on Girnhill lane were in need of serious remedy; in effect, they had been built with structural defects. They were sold off to a variety of different landlords. Sometimes they were sold off to the council; quite often, colliers who might have saved a bit of money—redundancy money or whatever—then bought their own house and that was a source of great pride for them. For example, I think of George Harrison, who lives on Girnhill lane, who has built a wonderful house there and put an enormous amount of love and attention into it, as have his wife and the rest of his family. However, it is sad to see the extent to which the estate has degraded, to the point where radical action must now be taken.

Three different Ministers have visited Girnhill lane with me: Charlie Falconer, or Lord Falconer as I had better describe him in this place; Lord Rooker, and the current Minister for Local Government, my hon. Friend the Member for Wentworth (John Healey), who visited when he was a Treasury Minister. All three of them were shocked at the state of Girnhill lane. The council has made money available—about £5 million so far—but when the few people who are still living there look around them, they say, “It cannot possibly be true that they have spent £5 million in Girnhill lane, John, because where has it gone? And how come it has taken so long?”

I must say that I am very frustrated indeed and I understand the anger of the people who live on Girnhill lane that we have not seen further action. However, the truth is that, because Mrs. Thatcher split up the Coal Board estate into so many little parcels of land, it has taken ages to reassemble the estate, buying each small parcel of land to establish an overall development. One landlord owned probably half the estate in the area, but lived in South Africa. It was very difficult to contact him or negotiate a price with him. The negotiations with him went on far too long, in my opinion; we might have used a compulsory purchase order against him some time before we did. The process took a long time and it was very frustrating. I feel frustrated and sometimes angry about it, and certainly the people who live in Girnhill lane do, and rightly so.

The land assembly has been more or less completed now at Girnhill lane. We want to proceed with the construction of 220 new houses, which is a very exciting prospect indeed. However, the time for waiting or for meetings behind closed doors in the council or regional offices is over; I want to see action now in Girnhill lane and I know that the people who live there feel that even more strongly than I do.

If we are not careful, however, all the work on housing that I am talking about will pass the local people by, because workmen will come in, do the work and then move on. I would like to see some of this house building that I have mentioned linked by training to apprenticeships for many of the young people in the area who are looking for stable future employment. Why should such apprenticeships not be in a building trade, given all the housing that will be built in the area?

Briefly, I want to touch on the several issues that still need to be addressed. First, the supermarket deserted the town and left just an empty building there. Without a supermarket, the town centre is not in a healthy state and the local traders desperately want some form of
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regeneration for it. If necessary, the public sector, including the Government, needs to say, “We will make a supermarket happen there.” That happened in Hemsworth; we got Tesco to come and that Tesco supermarket is part of the regeneration of that town. A similar process must happen in Featherstone.

I would also like to see linkage between all the jobs at Green lane that I mentioned and the rest of the town. At the moment, Green lane is a dead-end road: people drive in off the M62 to work there; there is a cul-de-sac, and then there is the town, 50 yards further away. I would like to see a linkage between the two roads, so that some of the money and economic activity in Green lane spills out into the rest of Featherstone. I have already mentioned that much more work needs to be done on housing, and I will not repeat that.

Featherstone is a sporting town. No doubt, Mr. Cummings, you will know a great deal about Featherstone Rovers, which is a very famous and excellent rugby club that is well led and deeply ingrained in the local community. It is working with difficult youngsters and others who need help on very exciting projects. The chair of the club is Paul Coventry, who is very dedicated both to the rugby club itself and to its integration into the town, as are the other directors. However, there are many other sporting activities in the town, from the cricket and bowling green to Featherstone Lions, which is an amateur rugby league club. All those sporting activities and organisations ought to be brought together on to a campus somehow, so that we can have a sense of sporting excellence right in the middle of Featherstone.

Finally, there are the highway problems: poor highways are one of the main problems that we have in Featherstone. There is huge congestion, with people driving backwards and forwards, often bypassing Featherstone. The obstructions and difficulties with local highways are causing real problems. We have a plan for a south-east link road, which would begin to alleviate some of those problems.

All of those ideas are being brought together. I have said that there has been about £30 million of investment over the last 10 years in the Featherstone area, but there is more to do. There is a master plan for the town and an urban renaissance document, but they must not be reduced to subjects for a shallow talking shop. I want action, and so do the people of Featherstone. That is why I support the proposition that Featherstone should become a coalfield action partnership area. The primary agencies—the Coalfield Regeneration Trust, Yorkshire Forward, English Partnerships and Wakefield metropolitan district council—should come together urgently to ensure that a coalfield action partnership is agreed and that it proceeds.

I have discussed all those matters with my hon. Friend the Minister and Cabinet Ministers. The subject has been discussed at the highest levels. I want the Government to move from talking to the action that is required. I press my hon. Friend the Minister to commit the Government to working with me and others to ensure that Featherstone is successfully integrated into the economic success story that we are seeing elsewhere in west Yorkshire.

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