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Volume 487: debated on Monday 2 February 2009

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Chris Mole.)

I am delighted to have secured this debate about Eastham, as I feel strongly that it has been dealt a series of unfair blows recently, and I am pleased to have so many colleagues around to support me. Every community needs to retain certain basic facilities, which need to be preserved and protected from planning and other decisions that threaten to damage them. Any community needs an essential core. Eastham is characterised by being a pleasant and normal English community. It is not an inner city area. It is not rural. It does not depend on any one industry. In many respects, it is a microcosm of our society. My central motivation in leading this debate tonight is to challenge decisions that have been taken and to try to ensure that Eastham and other communities like it do not continue to be the victims of chance.

Like my hon. Friend, I am a great fan of Eastham. As a boy, I used to cycle down by the locks there. Will he tells us a little about the general environment, because I do not think that people understand what a picturesque place Eastham is?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend; that is absolutely true, and I shall deal with that point in those specific terms in just a moment.

Local authorities should have a vision for the protection and preservation of and comprehensive development strategies for communities such as Eastham. Decisions that do not act to Eastham’s advantage should be taken within a framework of detailed local knowledge and in accordance with the needs of local people, rather than by dint of the vagaries of chance, ad hoc actions and the whims of others, without heeding the consequences.

As my hon. Friend suggested, it might be useful to provide an overview of Eastham’s place in Wirral and its history. It has a population of about 12,000. Much of it is a green belt area, stretching from the border of the Bromborough industrial estate to the historic Manchester ship canal, the entrance to which is in Eastham at Queen Elizabeth dock. The original village of Eastham, around which more modern housing has been developed, is one of the oldest villages on the Wirral peninsula. It has been inhabited since Anglo-Saxon times and was mentioned in the Domesday Book. St. Mary’s church, which is at the heart of the village, is still active today, of course. The closure of its primary school some while ago, however, did not augur well for the sort of development of which I will speak.

A report in the parish magazine for September 1874 quotes Nathaniel Hawthorne—who was then the American Consul in Liverpool, as my hon. Friends will know—as describing Eastham as

“the finest old English village I have ever seen, with rural aspect, utterly unlike anything in America, in its midst a venerable church with a most venerable air.”

Much of the old village remains, with a mediaeval street pattern, irregularly clustered period buildings and a distinctive character.

Eastham village conservation area was designated in April 1974, and Wirral metropolitan borough council has specific policy objectives for it: to maintain the sense of separation from the surrounding built-up area through the retention of open spaces around the village core; to preserve the setting and sense of enclosure afforded by boundary walls, hedges and mature landscaping; and to preserve the visual setting of the village cross, war memorial and the church of St. Mary, with its yard and lichgate. Although I welcome that limited protection for the historic village, what is needed is a comprehensive policy framework for development in the whole area.

Eastham, like many other communities, has a small number of the key facilities that make it up. There is a much-valued day centre, which provides vital facilities for adults with learning and physical disabilities, and the excellent Lyndale school, which specialises in the education of children with profound and multiple learning difficulties. It is a centre of excellence. Last October, with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families, I saw the admirable work carried out by its talented and committed teaches.

Other local amenities include the usual selection of cafés and shops. A new medical centre is being developed, and there are facilities such as a rugby club, an Air Training Corps site and allotments. One of Eastham’s most treasured aspects is its country park, which is central to its character and a popular attraction. Home to a huge range of wildlife, it is a local treasure. It is also an important educational resource. Every year, park rangers lead more than 3,000 schoolchildren on activities, thus nurturing an interest in and understanding of nature and their environment that will stay with them into their adult life. Despite the loss of the Church primary school, good mainstream schooling is provided at Heygarth, Millfields, Mendell and Raeburn primary schools. South Wirral high school provides excellent secondary education.

But there are problems. Eastham gets little by way of funding. It suffers, like other areas that are neither rural nor inner city, from a lack of funding streams. My constituency as a whole and Eastham in particular is heterogeneous, rather than uniform in character. Notwithstanding the Government’s investment in communities that has surpassed that of any other Government, areas that may be classified as suburban—although Eastham would not see itself in that light—are in danger of falling between two stools and thus missing out on the resources that they need. Urban and rural areas benefit from policies, lobbies and organisations adept at getting the most out of the bidding system. Areas such as Eastham suffer as a result and do not benefit greatly from, for example, neighbourhood renewal, Sure Start or other such improvement funds. It is also a long way, and is seen as such, from the town hall in Wallasey.

Like many parts of the country, Eastham has social behaviour problems, often associated with excessive drinking by the young. The youth service and the police tackle the problem, but several shops in Clifton avenue, for example, have long been unoccupied, and have attracted antisocial behaviour and vandalism. Over the years I have corresponded about the matter with Wirral Partnership Homes, the council and the police, and I have recently been assured that they are working together to improve the situation. I hope that they are.

A new Tesco is to be opened on the Eastham Rake. In some ways that is welcome, but residents are worried about the threat to local small shops. Many of Eastham’s most valuable assets need better funding, or face an uncertain future. Unfortunately, even the prized country park is not immune: it faces the loss of a park ranger as a result of cuts owing to Wirral’s economic situation.

The day centre is experiencing a number of problems. The local authority is requesting that its privately funded minibuses be used for transport at other smaller centres elsewhere in Wirral. I recently met representatives of the local parents association who believe, I think reasonably, that the centre is the benchmark for adult day services in the area, and that full use of their own minibuses is essential to enable it to provide the best possible service.

To add insult to injury, the local authority has stopped funding fuel for the minibuses. The parents association tells me that funding for the fuel is now being provided by them and by carers at the centre. That penny-pinching is ill-advised. Worse still, the centre may be under threat of closure following the council’s strategic asset review.

It is a pleasure to be able to intervene on my hon. Friend, who does a remarkable job on behalf of his constituency and is a good neighbour of mine. He mentioned the strategic asset review. Does he agree that the review has problems, not least because it singled out Eastham library for closure when it was not on the list and swapped it with another library on the night of the decision? The same happened to Woodchurch library in very similar circumstances.

Order. The hon. Gentleman is, very ingeniously, trying to involve his own constituency in the debate, but the debate is very tightly drawn. The hon. Gentleman has probably said enough to enable his hon. Friend to respond to the point that he is making.

I am, of course, focusing on Eastham, but I am focusing on it as an exemplar of other communities. The council’s action in not including certain libraries in the review and consultation process and then closing them is wrong in both form and substance. I shall discuss that in some detail shortly.

Lyndale school is invaluable, but it is a primary school, and at the age of 11 its pupils must move to a different school that will not offer the same degree of specialisation. Teachers and governors believe that that is disruptive to children’s development, and that Lyndale should teach children up to the school leaving age. Such an extension of what is a highly valuable institution would be very welcome.

In 2008, it was announced that Heygarth and Millfields primary schools were to lose their crossing patrols. After writing to Wirral’s chief executive, I was informed that the council was reconsidering its position. Although I have emphasised to the chief executive the importance of ensuring road safety outside those schools in particular, I am not going to hold my breath.

Many Eastham residents find employment at Vauxhall. This is an issue close to the heart of my hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Andrew Miller). Like the rest of the motor industry, Vauxhall faces challenges, which may mean challenges to my constituents’ employment. We hope that the new Astra—which, I believe, will be produced in September—will alleviate the problem, but nothing is certain in the current climate. My constituents are uncertain, for instance, about the plans of Peel Holdings for land around Queen Elizabeth dock and for a tidal power scheme.

The future of Carlett Park, a further education campus in Eastham, is of profound concern. For many years I have campaigned to protect the campus from closure. In response to a question from me, the Minister called on the college to look again at the hole in the community that would be left by the removal of the campus.

Carlett Park may be a casualty of the current and historic trend towards shifting the focus of the majority of Wirral’s facilities to the north of the peninsula, leaving my constituents in the south—and to some extent in the west—devoid of key amenities. The centre of gravity in terms of population and politics in the north results in many in the south feeling hard done by and deprived.

My hon. Friend is known on Merseyside as a doughty champion of his constituency. As someone who used to teach at Carlett Park—and without interfering in the internal politics of further education in the area—I know that it had a very good reputation when I was there, although I suspect that I did not contribute greatly to that. It still has a good reputation and it would indeed be regrettable if it could not continue as a centre of further education.

My right hon. Friend makes the point much better than I was doing that the college is at the heart of the community. It cannot be judged solely in day to day terms because it is part of the history of the area and of Eastham in particular. People who have been educated very well there over the years, thanks to my right hon. Friend and others, greatly value its presence. It is emblematic of Eastham.

The closure of Carlett Park was not always inevitable, but sadly the college has almost made it so. Steps could have been taken to ensure that it adapted to remain relevant and to survive. It should have focused on engaging with local businesses, working together to ensure that local people could be educated locally in a way that provided them with the skills they need for our modern economy. The proximity of Carlett Park to the large and progressive companies in the Wirral international business park offered obvious opportunities for that kind of co-operation. Sadly, that has not been done and if the campus closes it will contribute to removing the heart of the community. I have told the college repeatedly that its facilities are about community as well as education, but it falls on deaf ears.

In recent times, Eastham has been threatened by two planning proposals, which have caused considerable anger and concern in the community. There have been obvious objections to the presence of heavy industry so close to a residential area—a mediaeval residential area at that—and one has to ask how such an area was ever zoned for industrial use. Agri Energy made an application for a grant to invest in a gasification plant which has now been put on hold following widespread local opposition. Proposals remain, however, for a Biossence plant that would convert waste into energy. Recent ministerial assurances about air quality will not go far enough to satisfy the range of concerns felt by my constituents on this issue. These include noise pollution as well as air pollution, disturbance to the local environment and safety. I have made a range of representations on this subject to the chief executive of Wirral council and the chief executives of the companies. I have asked parliamentary questions and met Ministers, and I have also offered local campaigning organisations meetings and the possibility of presenting a petition to Parliament.

In response to these threats, my constituents in Eastham have been organised and vocal in defence of their neighbourhood. The Eastham Village Preservation Association, founded in 1969, has fought hard on several issues, including those I have mentioned. More recently, residents have also formed Eastham Fights Back, which continues to voice their opposition forcefully.

The most recent blow to be dealt to the people of Eastham is the closure of its library and one-stop shop housed in the same building, which I had the pleasure of opening in August 2005. I welcome the retention of such facilities in Bromborough, but they will be much less accessible for Eastham residents. The closure of the library is deeply concerning to me on two levels. The first is that the council may have acted without due process, failing entirely to consult the public. At best that could be unconstitutional, but at worst it could be maladministration. It is certainly unprincipled and demonstrative of a lack of vision.

Eastham library is to be closed as part of Wirral council’s strategic asset review, involving 11 libraries and more than 20 other facilities. This library—as was the case with Woodchurch, I think—was not earmarked for closure but was added later, after the consultation process. There is at present no statutory requirement for consultation by local authorities before closing libraries and they are not obliged to tell the Department for Culture, Media and Sport that they are doing so. I am testing out what sanction the community has against that.

Although I understand the local authority’s need to balance the budget and to avoid high increases in council tax, especially at a time when families across the country are finding it difficult to make ends meet, Wirral council has none the less received above inflation increases in support from central Government every year since 1997. It is also worth noting that the library has received investment of more than £300,000 over three years. Its closure thus does not seem to make economic, or any other, sense. As a result, I have tabled questions to the DCMS and the Department for Communities and Local Government in order to establish whether provisions are in place to discourage such closures and how those closures fit into the broad framework of Government policy on libraries.

We had a similar situation in our area. With the local council and the Government, we made a range of alternative arrangements. The library has been relocated and the old libraries became community centres, linked to the new library. That has increased the number of people involved in the library. Would my hon. Friend like to come to Wigan with some of his residents to have a look at what we have done? He could then approach the Government to reach an alternative solution to save his libraries and his communities.

That is an extraordinarily helpful suggestion. A number of assets have been proposed for community transfer, but no preparation has been made for that and no guidance has been given. No packs have been handed out and no explanation has been given of how to set up a trust or whatever is needed to run such facilities. No opinion has been offered on what happens when one has managed to raise the revenue to run the facility but is suddenly faced with a high capital cost. What on earth is a community group running a local facility to do if the roof goes? That is the sort of lesson that I could learn, with others, from visiting my right hon. Friend’s constituency.

Although it is not legally binding, the DCMS expects there to be a well-publicised consultation with the local community over a minimum of six to eight weeks. That most certainly did not take place in the case of Eastham. The second cause for concern is that Eastham library is a valuable asset. The flood of correspondence that I have received from alarmed constituents, angry and shocked at the decision, is evidence that it is used and valued by young and old alike. The loss to the community is obvious. Wirral council’s website lists the library as one of few key amenities on the Mill Park estate, which is the largest council estate in the ward. The many groups who benefited from that local community library will be worst affected by the closure.

Communities such as Eastham are local, and the facilities that make up their heart need to be local, too. Eastham deserves not to be merely subject to the function of chance and all manner of random decisions, regardless of their adverse effect. Instead, its local authority and others should adopt a strategic view. The catalogue of recent events that I have outlined, on top of the loss of a post office some while ago, demonstrates that that is all sadly lacking and my constituents are suffering as a result.

Eastham is diverse both in terms of architecture and landscape and, crucially, in terms of the needs of its population. A comprehensive strategy must be put in place that takes into account that diversity and the proud heritage of the community. Such a strategy should, among other things, take account of the current and historic bias towards the north of the peninsula.

I call on Wirral council to review its decisions on the closure of 11 libraries, including tragically that of Higher Bebington, and the loss of more than 20 other facilities, taking due account of the effect on communities. I ask the DCMS to consider the effect of closing those 11 libraries at a stroke. I ask the council and the Department, together with the DCLG, to look at the processes involved in the closure of Eastham—and, indeed, Woodchurch—which seem to be on the borders of immorality and illegality.

Order. Before the hon. Member for Wirral, South (Ben Chapman) responds, may I say that I do not wish to curtail his Adjournment debate, which is obviously very important to him? I would ask him, however, to bear in mind that the House seriously truncated its debates earlier so that the staff of the House could get home.

I will not respond to the intervention, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

I ask Wirral Metropolitan college to look again at the closure of Carlett Park, and to heed my repeated pleas about its effect on the community. I ask Wirral council to have an overall strategy for its borough and individual communities, and to be conscious of the cumulative and consequential effects of individual decisions. As it is, the very bodies that ought to be promoting Eastham are those that are damaging it. The subject of this debate is the preservation, protection and development of Eastham; I do not believe that we are doing any of those effectively.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral, South (Ben Chapman) on securing the debate. He is renowned in the House as a tireless advocate on behalf of his constituents. I recall a debate that he and I had a couple of months ago on the important matter of allotments, in which he advanced the case on behalf of his constituents with considerable skill. He has done the same tonight.

My hon. Friend will know that, unfortunately, I am unable to give him the detailed answers that he is seeking to each of the points that he has raised. That is because the issue to which he refers ultimately needs to be decided and resolved locally. That does not mean, however, that I want to dismiss his overall argument. Quite the contrary: I completely agree with it. Tonight, he made a compelling case for preserving the local strengths and resources in Eastham, which are important sources of pride for the local community. I absolutely agree with his central argument that local authorities must have a strategic vision for the future, that local people should be central to shaping and influencing that vision, and that all decisions must be taken with reference to that overarching strategic plan. In that context, let me address the points that he has raised.

I want to start by making it clear that I absolutely agree that no community should be, to use my hon. Friend’s vivid term, the “victim of chance” in the manner that he describes. It is essential that the planning system should produce fair and transparent outcomes, and that communities have every opportunity to make their voices heard, to have their say and—I cannot stress this enough—to be able to influence decisions under consideration by the local authority. If that ability is not available, the public’s faith in consultation and—a more fundamental point—faith in the political process will be undermined.

My hon. Friend stated that Wirral borough council recently undertook a strategic asset review to look at making the best use of its resources. I understand that the objective of the review is to improve service delivery, offer better value for money, and support the regeneration of the whole borough. I am sure that he will agree that it is right for local authorities to consider whether the services that they offer to people are up to date, responsive to local needs and priorities, and provide value for money for the local taxpayer. However, I have enormous sympathy with the arguments that he has advanced in the House tonight and on his website, where he states:

“Whilst these decisions are a matter for the Council and Councillors, and not the MP, I am obviously concerned for my constituents, the staff involved and about the loss and quality of services. Overall, I very much regret that we have found ourselves in this position and that decisions have been taken so quickly. The decisions seem even harder to justify given that Wirral has had above inflation increases in support from central government each year since 1997.”

He reiterated that point tonight.

I understand that, as part of the strategic asset review, Wirral is looking at the condition of public buildings, their accessibility and the facilities that they offer. The local authority also undertook a six-week consultation, inviting residents and private and public organisations to contribute. The conclusion reached from this exercise was that “fewer is better”. It is not for me to comment on that conclusion. I understand, however, that the local authority wishes to join up council services with those of other organisations such as the police, the fire service and local primary health facilities. This seems sensible, as it would provide co-ordinated public services for the people of Eastham.

My hon. Friend the Member for Wirral, South (Ben Chapman) mentioned Peel’s plans, which include a massive housing development just over the border, in my constituency; it was approved as one of the Government’s growth points. Does the Minister not think that, as part of their strategic thinking, local authorities should engage with their colleagues across borders to ensure that where facilities are changed and housing is developed, there are adequate support facilities, such as libraries, to meet the needs of the local people?

That is a fair point. Obviously, I cannot comment on specific proposals that may go before the Secretary of State as part of the planning process. However, the idea that a local authority stands alone and autonomously is not appropriate in the modern world. A local authority will have links with neighbouring authorities. Given such things as multi-area agreements, it is important that local authorities talk to one another.

On the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral, South, the contentious element is that Wirral borough council wants to focus resources on Bromborough, which means that Eastham library is earmarked for closure. I want to concentrate on that aspect, because the issue is very important.

I very much welcome the retention of Bromborough, but if Wirral council wanted to do that, why did it not say so?

I shall come on to that.

Let me talk in general terms about libraries, which play a vital role in our communities and provide crucial services. When I was studying for my A-levels—not too long ago—I remember using Hartlepool’s libraries. They helped me get to university. Nowadays, the best libraries are state-of-the-art resource centres for an area, a welcome magnet for the entire community, with internet cafes, coffee shops, places of advice on jobs, skills and housing, and community rooms to allow residents’ groups to meet and community cohesion to grow. They are real assets, and it is not surprising that local residents feel so passionate about them. Indeed, during the annual, painful budget-setting round when I was a councillor on Hartlepool borough council’s cabinet, I felt so strongly about the value of local libraries that I always said that I would resign if any had been proposed for closure.

With regard to the concerns of my hon. Friend and of the residents of Eastham, I understand that the local authority has now, largely thanks to his efforts, agreed to work with the local community to explore alternative ways of making the best use of all facilities, including, as he said—I appreciate that he has some concerns about it—asset transfer to the community.

I reiterate my central argument that decisions about funding priorities and the best way in which to meet the needs of local residents must ultimately be made by local authorities. Central Government and Ministers cannot interfere in that. However, my hon. Friend made an important point about the consultation process. It is vital that that is clear, transparent and well publicised. I know that a consultation process took place between 27 November and 15 January, including four special area forum conferences, which were attended by more than 2,000 people. I also understand that the consultation was publicised in the local press and on the council’s website.

I note from my hon. Friend’s website and from his comments tonight that the decision about Eastham library was made as a result of the consultation and was not therefore directly consulted on. That is important. My hon. Friend the Member for Wirral, West (Stephen Hesford) also mentioned it. I also note that my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral, South was concerned that, as an important local stakeholder, he was not consulted. That is not good enough and I hope that his efforts tonight demonstrate the strength of his feeling to local decision makers. I understand that three overview and scrutiny committees met to consider recommendations presented to cabinet on 15 January. The views of those committees will be made to full council on 9 February.

There are no easy answers in such circumstances. It is not for me to interfere in such local decisions, but I emphasise that it is essential to follow the proper procedures and that local residents have every opportunity to be involved in shaping the future direction of their community.

Such decisions are undoubtedly difficult locally. It is important to strike a balance that meets the needs of as many local people as possible, providing them with the widest possible services. Given my hon. Friend’s excellent contribution tonight, I hope that he will continue to work with all local partners to help achieve the goal of excellent public services for the widest possible community.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.