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Burnham For Mayor

Thursday, 3 January 2013

New Year message

2012 will mainly be remembered for an unforgettable summer of sport.

The Olympics and Paralympics exceeded all our expectations and the sight of a gold post box in Leigh, honouring our own Heather Frederiksen, will live long in the memory.

But, London 2012 apart, this has been a difficult year.

I know from talking to people coming into my Leigh office that life is tough at the moment and people are struggling to make ends meet. Next year will be no better. Sadly, more cuts are on the way and I have real worries about the effect on local families and children of the Government's "bedroom tax", which will force many out of their homes.

I want to take this opportunity to remind people that my door on Market Street is always open to you or anyone you know who needs help.

But, amidst the gloom, there are some signs of hope. In 2012, Leigh has continued to buck the trend and brought in significant new investment. The fact that two major supermarkets have opened new stores in the town in 2012 is a clear vote of confidence in Leigh's future. And, hopefully next year, we can look forward to more regeneration as the development at the former Plank Lane Colliery site finally gets underway.

Looking back, I am relieved I managed to persuade the last Labour Government to allow early release of the public funding for the infrastructure and for the newly-named Diamond Jubilee Marina. Otherwise, this development might never have happened and the area remained a wasteland.  As it is, I have high hopes for it and think it will be an impressive flagship site that continues to transform perceptions of the Leigh area.

Elsewhere, other planning issues are more controversial. I know many people have real concerns about the proposed North Leigh development, while the on-going debate about sites for new housing is raising strong feelings.

In the summer, the Planning Inspector ordered the Council to open up even more land for housing - in line with Coalition policy - over and above the Council's original plans which were already controversial.
As a result, extra sites in Lowton, Golborne and to the south of Atherton have been identified and, unsurprisingly, are provoking fierce debate.

While I accept the need for more suitable and affordable housing, I have major concerns about the new plan. It seems to me to be a blueprint for gridlock on our side of the borough, where roads are already overloaded and public transport is simply not an option for many people.

Early in the New Year, I will attend the hearings on the revised plan and I will make these points in person to the Planning Inspector. I will speak out against the over-development of the east of the borough and call for a more balanced plan, where the load is more fairly shared across all communities. If any major development on the Leigh side is to go ahead, it is essential that comes with major improvements to public transport - specifically, a rail link for the Leigh area.

Improving transport in Leigh remains my top priority and there is some progress to report. 2012 has seen continued progress on the Leigh Guided Busway. Construction work will start in earnest in the New Year with the new service operational in 2015.

I know people are still sceptical about the Busway, and will take some persuading about it, but I genuinely believe it will be better than many think. Both Leigh and Tyldesley town centres will benefit greatly from a faster link to Manchester, while a stop has been added into the plans for Higher Folds. I am calling for a new terminal close to the Loom development, linking to the Spinning Gate and the Indoor Market, which could provide a new gateway for the town.

On a more personal level, I will always think of 2012 as a year of great progress on two very different campaigns.

First, October brought the brilliant news that the Boundary Commission had backed off its plan to break the Leigh constituency into three pieces and move our Town Hall to Westhoughton.

This was a fight we just had to win. Had this plan gone ahead, it would have caused serious damage to Leigh's sense of identity in the rest of this century.

I want to thank everyone who came forward to help. When we launched the 'Keep Leigh in Leigh' campaign, I wasn't sure we could do it. But it was heartening that so many people came out to help. In the end, the Boundary Commissioned listened to the sheer weight of public opinion and the Leigh Constituency, based in its historical boundaries, is now secure for the foreseeable future. I hope it sends a message to the powers-that-be in London that, in future, Leigh will not be pushed around.

The second campaign that has taken up much of my time this year is the campaign for justice for the families of the Hillsborough Disaster.

People think of Hillsborough as a Liverpool tragedy. But the sad truth is that it affected communities across the country, Leigh and Atherton included.

Leigh lad Carl Brown was just 18 when he died at Hillsborough. As a 19yr old Everton supporter, I was at the other Semi-Final at Villa Park while many of my friends were at Hillsborough.

I will never forget sitting in the Cherry Tree in Culcheth on the night of April 15th 1989 and hearing the harrowing stories of friends as they returned in a state of shock from the scene of the disaster. Little did we know at the time that efforts were already underway to shift the blame for what happened to the Liverpool supporters.

For me, Hillsborough is an issue where the personal and the political come together. Nothing that I will ever do in my political career will give me a greater sense of fulfilment than seeing the families finally getting the truth and justice they deserve. I will always treasure the card I received from Carl's mum shortly after the Hillsborough Independent Panel published its report.

Sadly, it all came too late for Stephen Whittle from Atherton - described as the "97th victim". Stephen gave his ticket to the match to a friend who subsequently died there. Down the years, he struggled with this and eventually took his own life, leaving what he had to the Hillsborough families. I know the momentous events of this year will have been hard for Stephen's family and friends but I hope they will take some comfort from the fact that the cause he supported so much is finally prevailing.

Looking ahead to 2013, I have been thinking about ways in which we can lift the mood and make the most of what we've got.

Leigh has got a brilliant facility in the LSV. But I feel we need to work harder to open it up to all the people of Leigh, young and old, and fill it with life.

With that in mind, one of my ideas for 2013 is a plan for the inaugural 'Leigh Olympics' at LSV. Over two days of competition - one for primary schools and one for secondaries - I hope we can throw open the doors and pack out the LSV with mums and dads, grans and grandads, making it a day to remember. More details will be announced early in the New Year.

Looking to the longer-term, I hope to make progress in 2013 on my plan for a 'Leigh Lads & Girls Club', on the same model as the Wigan Youth Zone. Giving our young people more positive opportunities is an essential investment we must make in Leigh's future.

As ever, as the year comes to a close, there is much to be optimistic about, not least the prospects of an exciting season for Leigh RLFC under our very own Coach of the Year Paul Rowley. The RFL have agreed to look at my call for the return of promotion and relegation so the door to Super League may be open again to us soon.

But there are tough times ahead too and one of the things that makes me proudest of Leigh and its people is the way we stick together and look out for each other. Long may that be so.