I hope you all feel better about being a part owner of Northern Rock than I do. Last week we had but little time as the Government whisked through the Nationalisation Bill to take over Â£110 billion of liabilities and all the staff, property, and contracts of Northern Rock. This amounts to an average commitment of Â£2,000 for every person in the country.
I am very nervous for the North East. Northern Rock is the most important business in the area. It is a big employer in its own right and has been a generous donor to the local community during its profitable private sector days. I fear for it in public ownership, as the record of nationalised industries has not been good.
Many of you will know that I am no great fan of nationalisation. I have come to this conclusion by seeing all too often nationalised industries put up prices by more than is acceptable, slash their numbers of employees by more than is desirable, deliver a poor quality service, and cost the taxpayer a fortune. I have seen and heard nothing from current Ministers in their approach to Northern Rock that gives me confidence that it is going to be better run in the public sector than it has been by private sector shareholders.
Wokingham has its fair share of problems from our current batch of nationalised industries. One of the oldest and biggest is the Post Office. Many people have petitioned against the closure of the London Road and Barkham Road sub-Post Offices. Many people think that the stamp price has been put up too much by the current management, regret the passing of two deliveries a day, and dislike the fact that the one delivery in the day often does not turn up before they have gone to work.
I donâ€™t think Labour Ministers arrived in office ten years ago wishing to close lots of Post Offices and looking to make the service worse. They, after all, believe in the joys of nationalisation and would have told us, in those happy days before they got into office, that under them the Post Office would go from strength to strength, improving its service and providing a good deal. So, what went wrong?
Ministers decided to cancel a lot of Government business that had been transacted across Post Office counters. The loss of this business and revenue undermined many of the smaller Post Offices around the country. The Government had to ask taxpayers to pay more tax in order to subsidise the Post Office network. The losses escalated, and the new management the Government brought in decided on a series of measures that have proved very unpopular. They have put up prices by much more than inflation. They cut back on service levels. Now they are embarking on a large closure programme in a desperate effort to balance the books.
When I have asked Ministers why it was that the nationalised Post Office had cancelled a lot of its contracts with the partially nationalised railway, and transferred letter haulage from rail to road, I have been told it was because road offered a much cheaper and more efficient answer. Ministers told me this with no sense of shame, and with no suggestion that they might do something about it. Surely a semi-nationalised railway industry should show more fight than that, and try and temp bulk freight like the post back from the roads to the tracks?
Which brings me to the railway. I have gone hoarse explaining to the nationalised Network Rail and to Ministers above it that in Wokingham the use of railway land as a development site near the station could free the money needed to improve or replace our substandard station. They listen politely. They often agree with me, but absolutely nothing ever happens. There is no spirit of enterprise, no get up and go, no sense of responsibility that makes Network Rail want to grasp the opportunity and improve that important first impression of Wokingham for the rail travelling public.
It is a great pity that our nationalised industries are not more responsive to the public good. I hope our representations to the Post Office will make them think again about the closure of sub-Post Offices in Wokingham, but I have my doubts. I wish my representations and those of the Council to Network Rail would finally result in them seeing the need to renew their station, but I am not expecting anything to happen in the foreseeable future.
That is why I am pessimistic about the future of nationalised Northern Rock. That was why I spoke against the Bill and voted against it last Tuesday. I fear taxpayers are going to suffer from taking onto the books such a large and expensive mortgage bank. The Ministers I see day-by-day in the House of Commons do not show any signs that they understand either the magnitude of what they have taken on, nor what has to be done to create a flourishing business again.