Monthly Archives: April 2002

Our Post Office can still deliver

An article by Gavin Strang in the Edinburgh Evening News

THE postal service in Britain is one of the most essential public services in the country. It has provided the British public with more than 300 years of mail delivery services. We all use it, and I for one must admit that I can occasionally take it for granted.

Postal services play a key role in modern economic and social life, providing communications between individuals, business and government.

It is a service which the public values, has a proud tradition of high standards of service, and is a testament to the staff who provide it.

The recent announcement of job cuts, post office closures and restructuring is a mere symptom of the severe difficulties facing our postal services.

The only positive news recently was that Consignia will return to its former brand names of the Royal Mail and the Post Office – a debacle which has already cost the service more than £2 million.

In 2000, the Postal Services Act was passed. It was designed by the Government, at the behest of consumer representatives, the unions and the Royal Mail itself, to allow the Post Office greater commercial freedom in order to compete in a communications sector which was developing rapidly.

The Act also provided for the creation of an independent regulator, Postcomm, which, in 2001, became responsible for the independent regulation of the postal services market in the UK.

Postcomm’s primary statutory duty is to exercise its functions in a manner best calculated to ensure the provision of a universal postal service at an affordable and geographically uniform price.

Postcomm’s secondary duty is to exercise its functions in a manner that is best calculated to further the interests of postal users, wherever appropriate, by promoting effective competition.

The recent proposals released by Postcomm are threatening the end of the universal service throughout the country for a uniform price, and this would result in a failure in both its primary and secondary statutory duties.

THE Post Office, or Consignia, as it is now known, is in dire straits. It is losing more than £1m a day and examining drastic cost-cutting measures. It is failing to meet its delivery targets, and although generally public confidence in the service remains high, it is crucial that these problems are addressed.

For years, the Post Office was making a profit and only in the last two years has the service operated at a loss. During the 18 years of Conservative government, 90 per cent of the profits generated by the service were siphoned off into the Treasury, leaving a trail of under-investment behind. As electronic mail, the internet and private couriers entered the communications arena, the Post Office was ill-prepared to widen its range of services.

The crisis in our rail services has left Consignia’s fleet of mail trains in disarray, affecting reliability of service, and leaving the company short of its targets for first-class, next-day, mail delivery.

The current economic slowdown has led to a reduction in the volume of mail traffic. At the present time, it costs Consignia 28p to send a first class piece of mail, yet it only receives 27p.

The obvious answer is that to sustain a viable universal service, it should raise the price of a stamp by a penny, to cover the cost of delivering it. Consignia did apply to Postcomm to do this, yet the regulator in its wisdom said that this was unacceptable, and that Consignia must find other ways to reduce its costs.

So thousands of jobs are now at risk in Scotland as, bound by the regulator, and in difficult circumstances, Consignia struggles to maintain a public service that is crucial to the development and future of this country. More than 480 post offices have closed in the past year, and services are already suffering.

Consignia now proposes to close one in three urban post offices to stem its losses, and between 30 and 35 are expected to shut in Edinburgh alone.

If things were not bad enough, it is in this climate that Postcomm has proposed the introduction of competition into the postal services market.

In a three-phase process, the most lucrative areas of Consignia’s monopoly are to be opened to private competition within months.

Consignia cross-subsidises its monopoly so that profits made in lucrative areas are able to help sustain rural services to our most remote communities.

The Conservatives rejected the idea of a competition-driven postal market, as proposed by Michael Heseltine, due to their concern about public opinion and rural services. The National Audit Office, in its report Opening the Post (the risks and opportunities), highlighted the problems which would accompany any decision to open the postal service monopoly to competition in the current climate. It admitted that the introduction of competition could result in ‘a breakdown in the delivery of a universal service at a uniform price’.

AT European level, the union Network International, which represents more than three million workers in the postal sector worldwide, is urging a re-think on liberalisation of European postal services, as it is not only in the UK that the universal service provision is at risk.

Is there any good news, you may ask? The announcement on March 15 that the consultation period for the Postcomm proposals would be extended was welcome news. This followed an early day motion and a debate in Westminster , when MPs on all sides raised concerns about the future of our postal network and appealed to Postcomm to give the public more time to respond to the document.

A further six weeks has been provided so that the public, individually and collectively, can raise their concerns with Postcomm.

The service provided by the Post Office is central to a stable economy and to consumers. The people of Edinburgh are well aware of the effect that the introduction of competition can have on our public services – we need look no further than the recent bus wars. Disruption to services, public confusion and dissatisfaction – we cannot allow the Post Office to become the next Railtrack or service levels to fall to those of the city’s bus service.

The provision of a morning delivery to every address in the country must be maintained and at a uniform price throughout the country.

Capital needs new age of the trains

An article by Gavin Strang in the Edinburgh Evening News

As Edinburgh grows and develops, we need new ways to tackle the transport challenges we face. Rail will be an important part of the answer.

Anyone who has driven across town during rush hour will know that Edinburgh has congestion to rival any city in the UK.

If we do not act, Edinburgh’s congestion will get much worse. Left alone, traffic in Edinburgh will increase by 30% by 2021.

That would be disastrous. Bad for our health as we breathe in more pollution, bad for our economy as it adds costs to business, and bad for us all held up in traffic as we try to go about our daily lives.

Transport policy-makers learned a big lesson in the last century: we cannot tackle congestion just by building new and bigger roads. We must instead improve public transport so more people can choose to leave their car at home.
Edinburgh is only a fraction of the size of London. But it is worth noting that 69% of people working in central London get there by rail. The proportion in Edinburgh is only 3%.

Edinburgh is a fast growing city. I believe we are at the stage of our development where the proportion of people travelling by train should rise significantly.

There is no doubt that rail is the best way to move large numbers of people into and around Edinburgh. Rail can get people from A to B directly, safely, comfortably and cleanly.

So what does the future hold?

In and around Edinburgh there are interesting plans afoot.

Edinburgh Council has secured funding for Phase 1 of Crossrail, providing from June cross-city services from a new park-and-ride station at Newcraighall through to West Lothian via a new station at Brunstane, Waverley, Haymarket and, from next year, Edinburgh Park. There are also calls for Crossrail to extend into Midlothian and beyond.

We should also see a rail link to Edinburgh airport. Glasgow and Edinburgh are the two largest airports in the UK without rail links, making these cities less attractive for business visitors and for tourists. The Scottish Executive confirmed last week that a rail link will be developed.

Trams should be making a comeback too. Edinburgh Council is taking forward preparatory work on a tramline for North Edinburgh and will seek further funding from the Scottish Executive for preparatory work on a West Edinburgh tramline.

For the future, there are also proposals for the reopening of the South Suburban railway – currently used by freight – for passenger services.
Looking further afield, the bulk of rail services within Scotland are currently provided by ScotRail.

Last week the Scottish Executive announced that instead of extending ScotRail’s franchise when it expires in 2004, a new franchise will be awarded. The new franchise will be for 15 years, rather than the current 7 year term, allowing the successful bidder time and security to invest in rolling stock and infrastructure. From my postbag I am more than aware of the need for improvement.

In addition to the new franchise, development of Waverley Station has long been planned as pressure on the station has increased steeply. It was announced last week that work on Waverley Station should begin in 2004, and the plans have been altered to provide better facilities for services for the West of Scotland as well as to those for the East and South.

The Borders need a rail link to Edinburgh, and the campaign for the reopening of the line should be supported.

Last week Wendy Alexander gave the strongest backing yet to re-opening the Central Borders Rail Link, saying that the line is key to the development of Edinburgh as a financial centre, and that she wants to make it as easy to get from the Borders to Edinburgh as from Hertfordshire to London.

Scottish Borders Council has been awarded £1.9million towards obtaining the necessary Parliamentary permissions for reinstating the line. A bill is expected to be presented to the Scottish Parliament at the turn of the year, with work starting in 2005.

Looking North, the bus priority measures on the road from the Forth road bridge are a positive development, but we also need to get more people across the Forth by rail. The SRA is currently examining a scheme to allow two trains to run simultaneously in the same direction on the same line on the Forth bridge.
Northwards to Aberdeen and Inverness and southwards to York and London, rail services are currently provided by GNER. Investment in these lines is greatly needed.

Given airport congestion and the environmental benefits of the train, rail must be made attractive to people travelling between Edinburgh and London.
Investment in the East Coast Main Line is in the national interest, and it is also very much in Edinburgh’s interests as a major European centre. And out to the east of the city, plans for a Musselburgh Parkway Station would be a major boost for our transport infrastructure.

Last month at a meeting with myself and Norman Murray, Leader of East Lothian Council, Christopher Garnett, the head of GNER confirmed that the company still intends to go ahead with the Musselburgh Parkway Station.

A Musselburgh Parkway Station would be beneficial not only to the people on the East of the city – it would also relieve congestion in the centre of Edinburgh.
So that is what is on the cards for Edinburgh’s railway connections. I am sure that everyone who travels into and around Edinburgh will join me in urging decision takers to be bold – after decades of neglect and the nonsense of privatisation, our city needs better rail links and services.

Of course rail is not the only answer to Edinburgh’s transport questions. New links take time and money to develop, and in many parts of the city there are no plans for a rail link.

Decent rail services must be part of an integrated transport solution including a modern bus network and facilities for bikes, pedestrians and motor vehicles. But if we are serious about addressing Edinburgh’s transport problems, then we must be serious about a role for rail.

Keep First Past the Post for Scottish local elections

An article by Gavin Strang MP in Campaign Group News

The debate over electoral reform for local government in Scotland is gathering pace.

In 1999 Labour promised the Liberal Democrats, our coalition partners in Scotland, that a programme of change for local democracy would be brought forward including progress on electoral reform. The McIntosh Commission then recommended proportional representation (PR), and while the Kerley Working Group was unable to produce a unanimous report, the majority recommended a Single Transferable Vote (STV) system.

A White Paper is promised before Easter, and there will be a consultation within the Labour Party.

The advantages of First Past the Post (FPTP) for local government in Scotland are very clear to me.

Firstly, the constituency link – the bond between councillor and ward – is at its strongest under FPTP. Under the current single-councillor system in Scotland, each ward has one councillor, so every constituent can ascertain easily who is accountable to them and who they should go to with local issues. Under many PR systems there would be councillors who are not tied to any one ward, and under the STV system favoured by the majority of the Kerley Working Party, multi-member wards will be required. We have had multi-member wards in the past in Scotland, and they are the norm in much of England. It is my view that single member wards give a more clearcut accountability between councillors and their constituents.

Secondly – and importantly for Labour Party members – First Past the Post lends itself to local party involvement and influence. By and large, local party members select their local candidate. PR systems tend to entail a significant amount of central party influence – and our experience of central party involvement in candidate selection in Scotland has not been a happy one.

Thirdly, FPTP is simple, easily understood and delivers clear-cut results. If we want to enhance voters’ involvement in local elections, it is imperative that we keep the electoral system accessible. I do not see how using a system like STV, where the successful candidate may depend, for example, on the second choices of people who voted for the least popular candidate, will move us in the right direction.

Finally, First Past the Post is far better than PR systems at delivering a clear majority result – PR systems make hung councils far more likely. There are several reasons why I believe we should steer away from making hung councils the norm:

Hung councils give third parties a disproportionate amount of power. An unpopular party can choose the nature of the administration by choosing which party to enter into coalition with. This reflects the wishes of very few of the electorate.

It is harder for an electorate to vote an unpopular administration out of power. A coalition in a council can suffer quite substantial swings against it in an election, but still remain in power.

If a party gains a majority in a council at an election, it does so on a manifesto, written in black and white and put to the voters. There is clear democratic advantage to this: the electorate can hold that party’s Councillors to account against that manifesto. And the ruling party has the opportunity to implement its manifesto. But if the party has to go into coalition with another party, the authority of the manifesto is greatly weakened, and indeed there is a ready-made excuse for jettisoning more awkward commitments.

Proponents of PR often state that PR is more democratic than FPTP. But the likely effect of PR – the hung council – is to have the nature and policies of the administration taken away from the ballot box and the manifesto, and shoved into the legendary smoke-filled room.

I will not pretend that First Past the Post does not throw up anomalous results from time to time. All electoral systems do.

But there are great benefits from FPTP that no one PR system can give us – the constituency link, accessibility, local party involvement, more clear-cut results. I fear that to ditch the benefits of First Past the Post in favour of PR would be to throw out the baby with the bathwater.