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5.17 pm

Richard Burden (Birmingham, Northfield) (Lab): I, too, should like to make a few remarks about the consultation associated with the urban reinvention programme. In particular, I draw hon. Members' attention to early-day motion 236, which I tabled on that very issue.

We were assured by Post Office Ltd., both in the Select Committee and elsewhere, that the urban reinvention programme was not simply a closure programme. We were told that it was aimed at creating a sustainable urban post office network. Some post offices would close, but others would remain open and new business opportunities would be explored. The needs and circumstances of different areas would be taken into

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account. However, that was not what was happening on the ground. In my own area, the Shenley lane post office was slated for closure. It was having difficulties and the sub-postmistress wanted to get out. However, when the Post Office was looking at the area's needs and assessing the viability of that sub-post office, it either missed or did not take into account the fact that there was a multi-million pound regeneration programme for the community. I pay tribute to the Bournville Village trust, which is involved in that programme, and to Postwatch, local councillors, the local church and, most of all, the local community, for banding together and winning a reprieve for that post office.

I was pleased when I learned that Post Office Ltd. was adopting a new approach. We were told that instead of looking at post offices branch by branch, it would develop area plans at constituency level so that everybody would be aware of what was happening. A letter to MPs from Royal Mail dated 14 August said that

That is all very well, but, reading on, I found that the only people whom the Post Office was going to consult about that plan were itself and sub-postmasters and mistresses. Only after the plan is drawn up will local communities, MPs and other people be consulted. Where in that is there any attempt to identify the opportunities, not just the threats, or to engage local communities? If I read that letter right, we will all, as hon. Members have said, simultaneously be trying to shut a number of stable doors after the horses have bolted.

I have been trying to get some straight answers from the Post Office, and it has taken a while. I did, however, get a straight answer from my hon. Friend the Minister for Energy, E-Commerce and Postal Services on 18 September when I put the matter to him. I was encouraged by his reply. He said that he agreed with me

I emphasise "throughout"—

that is a reference to me—

I hope my hon. Friend did so.

This week I received a definitive response to my letter from Post Office Ltd., which says that it is not practical to consult people at the strategic stage, as that would take too long. However, Post Office Ltd. reassures me by stating that Postwatch is involved in drawing up the plans. Let me tell the House how Postwatch is involved: it is given two weeks to comment before publication, on condition that it does not tell anyone else about the plans. Postwatch must make its comments in confidence. We are told not to worry—Post Office Ltd. will take everything into account. That reassurance comes from the people who did not notice the regeneration programme at the Shenley lane post office.

We are told that there is a sophisticated modelling system for the needs and opportunities in an area. That

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is good news. The Select Committee was encouraged by that. One of the things our report requested was to allow us to see the sophisticated modelling system. The answer contained in the Government's response is no. We cannot see the sophisticated modelling procedure because it is commercially confidential, so we do not even know how the Post Office is going about its activities.

That is not good enough. If the urban reinvention programme is to command confidence, people need to have a say in it—not just a say in the closure of post offices, but a say in the strategy for those closure programmes. Consultation will not take longer, because the programmes are being prepared anyway. Consultation will take place as they go along. But if it does take a little longer and the plans are improved as a result of the expertise of local people, what is the Post Office scared of?

In conclusion, I again draw the attention of my hon. Friend to the assurance that I received in the Chamber from my hon. Friend the Minister for Energy, E-Commerce and Postal Services on 18 September and ask him to ensure that Post Office Ltd. abides by the assurances that he gave me about that consultation, and that it changes course and agrees to consult hon. Members and the local community on the strategy for the area plans, not just on their effects. If Post Office Ltd. fails to do that, we must draw a simple conclusion: the Post Office may be interested in stamps, but if this is the way it goes about its affairs, the only stamps it is interested in are rubber ones.

5.22 pm

Mr. Mark Francois (Rayleigh) (Con): I am pleased to have been called to contribute to this important debate. It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Richard Burden). We may not agree on much, but, curiously, this evening he and I are largely in agreement. I shall focus my remarks on the unfortunate effects of Government policy on the closure of post offices, particularly as it affects people in my constituency.

There are some 17,500 local post offices across the United Kingdom, 97 per cent. of which are operated by sub-postmasters, under contract to Post Office Ltd. Collectively, those offices comprise the largest retail network in the whole of Europe, receiving some 45 million visits a week. Despite that, the so-called urban post office reinvention programme is scheduled to close about one third of the current 9,000 offices designated as being in urban areas.

We have faced several closures in my constituency in recent years. For example, two years ago the Post Office announced the closure of the village post office in Rettendon, which was then part of the rural network. A few months ago, it went on to close the urban network post office at Eastwood road in the town of Rayleigh. Now two further urban network closures are proposed, at Golden Cross in Ashingdon and at Apex corner at Plumberow avenue in Hockley. The two latest proposed closures, particularly the last one, have led to considerable anxiety in my constituency, which I take the opportunity to highlight directly to the Minister this evening.

I am concerned about the way in which the Post Office has gone about announcing the programme of closures. The pattern appears to be one of trickling them out over

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a period of time, which only creates further uncertainty about what further closures, if any, may be in the pipeline. Frankly, it is also difficult for the associated consultation system to retain much credibility. A closure will often already have been agreed with the sub-postmaster in question before it is even announced to the general public, and, crucially, little emphasis is then placed on attempting to find a replacement. There is an understandable degree of cynicism and a perception that the Post Office is merely going through the motions in many instances when it initiates a consultation exercise on a proposed closure. Even the highly standardised consultation letters that are sent out to MPs tend to lend themselves to that conclusion.

Those are my criticisms of the way in which the process is being carried out, but I should like now to consider the two individual cases to which I have referred. The proposed closure at Golden Cross in Ashingdon worries me. The alternative office proposed in the consultation document is at Ashingdon road and is 0.8 miles away—only slightly less than the Post Office's recommended maximum distance for an alternative office, which is one mile. Ashingdon road itself, with which I do not expect the Minister is personally familiar, is very busy. That could be a hazard to pedestrians, and especially those such as women with young children, who will have to keep their children under close supervision if they are attempting to walk as much as a mile to use the proposed alternative office.

I am also very concerned about the proposed closure of the post office at Apex corner, Plumberow avenue, in Hockley. Again, the alternative post office, this time in the centre of Hockley, is cited as being 0.8 miles away from the office earmarked for closure. However, I reiterate a point that has been made by a number of hon. Members: that is the distance as measured on the map, but the ground in question is undulating, which means that the journey travelled is much nearer to the full mile in practice.

The Plumberow avenue office is located in an area that has a high proportion of senior citizens. A range of bungalows is situated nearby, and there are several local care homes. That happens to be an unfortunate coincidence in the context of the proposed closure. Most of those people will now have to walk to a busy main road, under a railway bridge and into the centre of Hockley to go to the post office. That could be a hazardous journey, especially in the wet, because of the nature of the ground, and especially for someone whose mobility is impaired, perhaps by their age. Moreover, the nearest bus stop to Apex corner is half a mile away. Even if people get to that bus stop, there is no direct bus link to the proposed alternative office in the centre of Hockley. For a range of reasons, the proposed closure is particularly unsuitable. If it goes ahead, it will cause considerable anxiety and inconvenience to my constituents, and not only senior citizens, although it will affect them in particular.

What has upset my constituents is the feeling that nobody is listening to them. They have been denied even a little conversation, let alone a big one. They believe that the matter is effectively a fait accompli and that a large organisation, which is ultimately owned by the Government and over which they have little or no influence, is taking decisions in its interests without

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regard for their interests. I seek sincerely to drive that point home to the Minister this evening.

I shall summarise, as I am conscious that other hon. Members wish to speak, and I want to facilitate that. It must be apparent to the Minister from this debate that we are not discussing a purely partisan issue. He has been in his bunker taking artillery fire from all parts of the House, and I think that some artillery fire is yet to come. I genuinely ask him to appreciate that there is serious concern in all quarters. The programme has obviously started to go seriously wrong, and this should be exactly the point at which Ministers, if they are listening, should step in to take a grip on the situation and try to do something to put it right.

I am responding to the consultation exercise, so I hope that my points will be taken seriously. Is there anything that the Minister can do, or any advice that he can offer, that would be of benefit to my constituents in Ashingdon and Hockley and to those of other hon. Members who are in the same boat?

The important social role that post offices play was stressed by many Members, from the Chairman of the Trade and Industry Committee downwards. For the sake of brevity, I do not intend to rehearse the argument, but it would be a great shame if the Minister did not take that particularly important point on board.

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