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Burnham For Mayor

Tuesday, 8 March 2016

Leigh Observer Column

One of my least favourite chores has to be the weekly family shop. But when, like me, you spend much of the week working away from home, you're not really in a position to argue when the boss shoves a long shopping list and a few 'bags for life' in your hand on a Sunday morning.

However, to delay the pain, I do have a horrible habit of leaving it to the very last minute. At around 3.45pm on a Sunday afternoon, I am often to be found racing around the aisles of the supermarkets of Leigh throwing random items into my trolley as the store announcer asks people to make their way to the check-out because the store is about to close.

Given this, you might think that I would be in favour of George Osborne's plan to relax the Sunday trading laws to allow opening beyond 4pm. But you would be wrong. When it comes before Parliament this Wednesday, I will be voting to oppose any change in the law and to keep Sunday special.

Anticipating that this vote was on the horizon, I have often taken the opportunity as I am packing my bags late on a Sunday to chat to people working on the checkouts to find out whether they support a change in the law. On the one hand, you could argue that it would offer them the chance to get extra working hours. Then again, customers only have so much money to spend. Longer store opening would not necessarily increase takings but could in fact result in spreading the same number of staff hours more thinly over a longer period.

What I have discovered from talking to shop-workers is that the vast majority are strongly against the change. Working in retail means they already have to put up with anti-social working hours. For those with kids, early closing on a Sunday gives them the breathing space they need on a Sunday night to get things ready for the school week ahead. If Osborne gets his way, this little oasis of time will be taken away from them and many will lose those precious hours with their little-ones ahead of the Monday morning school run. I also feel sure that, for younger shop staff without kids, a Sunday night off is a welcome way of recovering from a late Friday or Saturday night out.

But the truth is that there are even bigger arguments against relaxing the laws. I believe we have already allowed shopping to dominate far too much of our lives. I don't know about you but I don't want to live in a 24/7 society where we all have to bow down to the great god of retail. Surely it is a healthy thing for us all to take a step back on one day of the week and focus on the family, go to church, down to the pub or out for a long walk?

George Osborne like to claim that he is not forcing Sunday opening on anyone but instead will leave it up to local councils to decide whether or not to do it. But this is a dishonest position. He knows full well that the muscle of the big retailers far outweighs that of local authorities. If a council decided to take a stand against relaxing the hours, they would immediately face threats from retailers to up sticks and re-locate their stores in council areas that would agree to their demands. This Chancellor likes to pose as a friend of devolution. But the truth is he is an even bigger friend of big business and is more than happy to do their bidding.

I think the current system of 4pm closing works fine as it is. It simply focuses the mind of people like me to switch off the football and get down to the shop on time. And, to be honest, I am glad that it forces me to do that. Because it means that, on a Sunday night, I am home with the kids rather than traipsing aimlessly round the aisles looking for things to put in their packed lunches.

It is always a sure sign that the Government have got something seriously wrong when a broad coalition of interests unite against it. This ill-thought-through proposal has succeeded in uniting many of the church and faith groups with the excellent shop-workers Union Usdaw and with smaller independent retailers. And its seems that this powerful alliance has spooked a number of Tory MPs. The rumour in Parliament this week was that many are prepared to defy the Prime Minister and Chancellor and vote it down.

We will find out whether enough are prepared to put their money where there mouth is and vote their own Government down. But it does seem that the splits that have opened up in the Tory Party as a result of the EU referendum are creating a situation where Tory MPs are prepared to defy their Party on a broader range of issues.

For the sake of the many people in Leigh who work in retail, let's hope so. But I can assure them that I will be there in Parliament to cast my vote.

I will do that not just because I want to repay Usdaw for the great support they gave me in the Labour leadership election, nor because of my strong feeling that we should keep Sunday special. It is for both of those reasons. But there is an even more important one. It is because the next time I arrive at a checkout at 3.59pm on a Sunday with a full trolley, much to the annoyance of the person serving me, I want at least to be able to look them in the eye and say that I voted the right way!

Many people have been in touch with me over recent days to express their frustration that the car park of Pennington Flash has once again been over-taken by the caravans of a group of travellers. And I have to say that I have every sympathy with them.

The Flash is a wonderful asset at the heart of our community. It should be there for everyone to enjoy every single day and never dominated by one group or another to the detriment of others. Reports that people visiting the Flash in recent days have faced intimidation are simply not acceptable.

I will always be one of the first to say that we should respect the traditions and culture of the travelling community. But I will also not hold back in saying that respect needs to cut both ways. There needs to be a respect for this outstanding environment as an area of natural beauty and for the people who work to keep the Flash clean and make it what it is.

The Wigan Borough, like other local authorities, has a long-standing policy of designating certain areas as suitable for use by travellers. I am sure that many in the travelling community would argue that these sites are insufficient for their needs and that more need to be found. They may have a point. But that does not justify occupying such an important public facility like this.

I know that many people will ask why the council hasn't done more to stop this. But, to be fair to them, I know that they took all reasonable steps as quickly as they could to try and resolve this situation safely, including initiating legal proceedings. Our local ward councillors had a big part to play in that swift action and I would like to thank them for it.

Looking ahead, I think we need to find a better solution to prevent a repeat of last weekend. I know that Councillor John O'Brien has called for physical restrictions to be erected to prevent entrance to the Flash by vehicles of the kind that were on site in recent days. I fully support him in making that call. I suspect that council officers will reply by saying that the site also needs to be accessible to large maintenance vehicles. But surely it is not beyond the wit of man to devise a solution where a key could be provided to open any gates or headroom restrictions?

Another idea that the council is looking at is a borough-wide ban. This would mean that, if a similar situation arises in the future, the police and council will not have to wait for a court order to be granted but can act immediately.

I will be arguing that a permanent solution is needed and that both physical restrictions and a ban are needed. The Flash is the jewel in our local crown and it is fully justified that we should take steps to protect its use as an open space for everyone.