2013 has been a hard year for many people across the Leigh area. The past 12 months have seen a number of new foodbanks spring up – a sad sign of the times we are in.
I am glad to represent a town that knows how to help others and I pay tribute to the volunteers who worked through the festive period to keep them open.
But I do wonder what things have come to in England 2013 - a country with more than enough food and money to go round - that foodbanks are needed.
I am the first to say that people should work if they can. But I don’t want to live in a country where children go hungry or where we punish or stigmatise those that can’t.
I know from speaking to people in my surgery just how much hardship has been caused by policies like the bedroom tax. I was pleased when my own party came out clearly against it but there is more we need to do make this country fairer.
In 2014, I will continue to argue for an end to zero-hours contracts, a modern scourge that denies security to so many in Leigh, as well as a freeze on energy bills and a living wage for all.
Thankfully, 2013 has not been all bad news.
It will go down as the year when Leigh lit up the Rugby league World Cup with a memorable night at the LSV and when we finally waved goodbye to ‘Kamikaze Island’.
It will also be remembered for a magnificent trophy double.
I’m talking, of course, about the Northern Rail Cup and the Conference Challenge Trophy - not some old pots won by that town two miles past Hindley!
It was great that Leigh Miners won their famous victory on home turf, while the Centurions’ second half performance in Halifax – running riot in front of the massed cherry and white ranks – will live long in the memory.
It was a timely reminder to the sport’s powers-that-be that there is no stronger RL bedrock than our town. I hope 2014 will bring more confident steps back towards Super League.
More widely, 2013 saw the continued economic revival of our town.
When I first stood for election in 2001, I remember standing on Bradshawgate and asking people what Leigh most needed.
The list went something like this: a swimming baths, a cinema, a Marks & Spencer’s and a railway station.
It is a measure of the progress Leigh has made in the past decade that we can now cross off three of those items.
But, of course, it is the last that remains the most important. I know that the job I set out to do to do all those years ago to put Leigh back on its feet will not truly be done until it is reconnected to the rail network.
I see that as utterly essential to the prosperity of Leigh and its people in this century and the next.
HS2 represents the best chance I will ever get to achieve this.
This will be the only time in our lifetimes that the UK Government lays new railtrack in this constituency. On your behalf, and on behalf of your grandchildren and great-grandchildren, I have to try and make the most of it.
But I am well aware that HS2 is not universally popular and will cause major disruption for people in Lowton and Golborne.
That’s why, early in the New Year, I will hold two meetings – one in Golborne and one in Lowton – with the purpose of capturing all the concerns people have. This is so that, regardless of whether or not I agree, I can do a proper job of representing the full range of opinion to the Government.
The first meeting will be at the Golborne Community Bowling Club on 3 January; the second at Lowton Social Club on 9 January. Both start at 7.30pm and all are welcome.
The consultation on the proposed route closes at the end of January and I propose to submit a detailed paper based on my meetings.
But I am already clear that I will be making putting two clear points to the Government.
First, I will ask them to come back with a range of options and locations for the proposed depot, rather than presenting us with a fait accompli.
Second, I will call for a new station interchange at the point HS2 crosses the East Lancs, with a loop off the Liverpool-Manchester line.
If the Government fails to listen, I have to say I will find it very hard to justify HS2 to my constituents.
Why should they continue to be expected to pay taxes for the rail network only for all the money to be spent elsewhere?
Please be assured that I will be making that point loudly on your behalf over the coming months.
2014 will see other developments that will continue the regeneration of Leigh.
It should finally see the start of work to complete the regeneration of Plank Lane.
Back in 2008, after the financial crash, the scheme to regenerate the former pit site was on the verge of collapse.
As there was no immediate prospect of a housing development, the Government had threatened to withdraw the public investment.
But I will always be grateful to Margaret Beckett MP, the then Housing Minister, who agreed to release the public money to pay for the infrastructure works and new marina so the chance wasn’t lost to develop the site in the future.
It looks like that decision will soon pay dividends.
In 2014, work is expected to begin on a new development that will provide an outstanding new western gateway to Leigh. Once again, people’s perceptions of our town will be changed for the better.
One of my other regeneration priorities this year has been the Glebe, Gordon and Selwyn Street.
Together with councillors, I have held a number of meetings with residents to develop plans to improve it.
The area has suffered since the closure of Hilton Park and the relocation of Leigh East and there has been a rise in anti-social behaviour.
Now there is a realistic prospect that we can turn things around.
The 5 Boroughs mental health trust has put forward plans to rebuild a high-quality hospital development on the old Leigh East and clinic part of the site.
As part of this, I have asked the council to consider designating the wider area a ‘renewal area’ so we can pool planning gain and Lottery money to improve the surrounding streets.
The residents have shown great understanding and it is great that their patience may soon be rewarded.
Working with them has been a reminder of the decency of the Leigh people I am lucky to represent.
Their sheer generosity never ceases to inspire me, be it helping support our foodbanks or the fundraising campaigns we have seen in the past year.
Other places may have more money than we do. But nowhere is richer in community spirit than Leigh and I wouldn’t want to represent anywhere else.
You continue to give me tremendous backing through all the ups and downs of politics. I remain grateful for that and will do my best to repay you in 2014.
A happy and prosperous New Year to you all.