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22 Mar 2004 : Column 671

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Longlevens Post Office

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Paul Clark.]

10 pm

Mr. Parmjit Dhanda (Gloucester): There can be few occasions on which a Member of this House relishes being forced to rewrite his or her speech just hours before a debate. This, however, is such an occasion. It is also an occasion that has taught me something about the strength of this Chamber and of Adjournment debates, and about the difference that they can make. I have had to amend my speech several times during the day because of the negotiations that I have been in with the private sector today. I shall elaborate on that and on the effect of those discussions, which have been very positive with regard to issues that affect my constituency.

Five hours ago, my constituents in Longlevens were despairing at the prospect of losing their local post office. I shared their anger about the way in which they had been treated. I knew how important it was to save that vital service, so in recent weeks, I have worked with local people in Gloucester, organising petitions, meeting them in Parliament and even raising the matter with the Prime Minister two weeks ago in Prime Minister's Question Time.

This evening, we took several steps forward towards achieving a result, although we still have some way to go to resolve the issue totally. I would like to take this opportunity to explain the background to the situation, to discuss the points still to be resolved and to seek the Minister's advice on the wider issues raised by the recent controversy in Longlevens in my constituency. It is a controversy from which I believe that there is a great deal to learn, and my experience of today shows that some learning is going on at the present time as a consequence of the experience.

In recent years, it has become a commonplace that communication has been transformed somewhat by innovation. For many of us, air mail has been replaced by e-mail and the lick of a stamp has been superseded by the click of a mouse. In such circumstances, it can be all too easy to forget the importance of our local post offices. The residents of Longlevens in my constituency value their local post office enormously. Unfortunately, that service was recently put in great danger. The licence for the Longlevens branch has very recently been acquired by Tesco, which gave just three months' notice that it intended to close the branch to create more space in its local store. My constituents in Longlevens are unhappy about the way in which the decision was taken, and so indeed am I. I am also concerned about the wider implications of closing the post office in terms of the national picture, and I hope that the Minister will be able to elaborate on that point.

That is why my office and I were so pleased this evening when I received the latest fax from Tesco; I have had two faxes during the day. It has now said that it will not shut the post office on 8 May, as it had originally intended. It has made this promise:


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Of course, there is still much more to be done, and a new location in Longlevens must still be found, but I welcome this significant step forward by Tesco.

I shall elaborate on that letter, which contains three key concessions made today. First, Tesco says:

I certainly welcome that.

Secondly, on a financial level, Tesco says:

I also welcome that.

Equally significantly, Tesco made a third concession hours before this debate, when it said:


I welcome all three concessions.

It may help if I go into further detail about the issue in Gloucester. In January 2003, Tesco purchased the T and S Group, which owned 318 stores containing post offices nationally. Although it stated that it would retain many of those post offices, reports suggest that up to 100 of them could close. It promised that it would give six months' notice wherever possible before closing a post office. In the case of Longlevens, however, it decided that it would only give three months' notice.

I say to Tesco, "Why the rush?" Post Office Ltd. is due to publish its area plan in the third quarter of this calendar year detailing the need for local post office provision in Gloucester. Tesco pre-empted the plan by deciding to close Longlevens before it saw what the plan had to say. It also failed to seek the views of local people, who were utterly dismayed by the total lack of consultation. Indeed, the public interest did not seem to feature in its initial calculations.

In my view, that is evidence of a wider lack of strategic thinking about the future of post offices in Gloucester and a lack of effective co-operation between Post Office Ltd. and Tesco. This incident, and others like it, threatens to undermine the Post Office Ltd. urban reinvention programme. Under the programme, the Oxstalls branch, which is also in Longlevens, was recently closed. Since Longlevens is just 0.9 miles away from the Oxstalls branch, it was subsequently designated as a "receiving branch", but now it, too, is threatened by closure, and its future remains uncertain. Post Office Ltd. is obliged to ensure adequate provision for customers in this area. If two neighbouring branches close within months, how can that obligation possibly be kept? The simple answer is that it cannot.

The closure seems to have surprised Post Office Ltd. as much as it surprised me and, indeed, everybody else. The situation could be exacerbated further because of uncertainty about the future of the nearby Barnwood post office. A planning application has been submitted

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that would involve the Barnwood site being knocked down to build flats. The operator of a nearby filling station has, however, indicated its willingness to take on the post office in Barnwood on its own site, but it is reluctant to do so until Post Office Ltd. has clarified its views on the future of services in the area plan, which will not be ready until autumn this year.

As a consequence of that, it is not inconceivable that one 12-month period could see the closure of Oxstalls, Longlevens and Barnwood post offices, resulting in a massive gap in post office provision in the north and north-east of my constituency. If one draws an imaginary circle with a 1-mile diameter around the Barnwood post office, as I have, one will see that the community that it serves includes part of the Elmbridge and Longlevens communities, which would be hit again.

In those circumstances, it is not surprising that the local community in Longlevens has come together in opposition to the plan. I cannot overemphasise to my hon. Friend the Minister how strongly local people feel about this. Thousands have signed petitions such as those organised by me and by The Citizen newspaper, and many more have phoned BBC Radio Gloucestershire, particularly the Mark Cummings mid-morning show—all calling on Tesco to think again. Tesco's letter demonstrates that it has listened, to some extent, and I welcome the dialogue that it now seems willing to take part in.

The closure of any post office will cause unhappiness among its users, but I think that I have shown that the situation in Longlevens is particularly serious. Since neither you, Mr. Speaker, nor my hon. Friend the Minister have, to my knowledge, had the privilege of visiting Longlevens—although you are both welcome at any time—I want to talk a little more about the community there. Longlevens is a thriving neighbourhood with between 8,000 and 9,000 residents. On the same street as the post office is a wide range of shops, including the Co-op supermarket, a bakery, a pharmacy and a greengrocer. As the Post Office itself would agree, the post office is not an isolated, struggling service that cannot be justified economically or socially, but in many ways the hub of its local community.

Longlevens post office is especially valued by local pensioners. More than 22.8 per cent. of the population is aged over 60—that is higher than the average for Gloucester, which is in turn higher than the average nationally. Many of those pensioners are worried that they will no longer be able to rely on having such an important amenity at a close walking distance. Can we really expect them to walk several miles once or twice a week to what will, for some of them, be an unfamiliar part of town? The benefits that they derive from the post office do not relate solely to the transactions that are processed there. For many lonely senior citizens, a weekly or twice-weekly visit to the post office and other nearby shops is an important means of maintaining social contact with others.

That point was well made by my constituent, Jackie Dee, who runs the greengrocers two doors from the post office, and who visited Parliament with her family a fortnight ago on Wednesday. Jackie and her family feel a strong sense of duty towards their local community. They know their customers well and provide them with a valued service and friendship. It is their friends and

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customers who will lose out as a result of the closure of the local post office. To rub salt into their wounds, Sir Terry Leahy, Tesco's chief executive, told one of my constituents—presumably in a circular letter or round robin—that the post office counter would close to provide space for a much wider range of fruit, vegetables and healthy eating options. But residents can already get that at the greengrocers run by Jackie Dee just two doors away from the post office, as Tesco could easily have discovered with a little local research—what residents want is a post office.

What can be done about the situation? In recent weeks, I have engaged constructively with local people, Tesco, Post Office Ltd. and Postwatch, which has been very helpful. It would be foolish to make any decision on the future of the post office in Longlevens until POL has published its area plan. After all, that document will provide the context for taking strategic decisions about the future of post offices.

I therefore asked Tesco to defer a final decision until the area plan was made available. Until earlier this evening, the last trading date was set to be 8 May. I asked Tesco to postpone that and give the people of Longlevens the same extensive period of notice as it gave other post offices that it intended to close elsewhere. I welcome its response, which was made only hours before the debate. I also seek a specific guarantee that Tesco will not close the post office until an alternative location has been found and is ready for business. The guarantee, "while we search" in the letter should ideally read, "until we have found" a new location.

I understand that the Co-op has shown an interest in taking over the local branch from Tesco and would keep it in Longlevens. A local church and shops are also being pursued as possible relocation options. I should be grateful if the Minister encouraged Post Office Ltd. to take into account, when drawing up its area plan, the uncertainties surrounding the future of the post offices in north-east Gloucester. It should take all necessary steps to meet its obligation to ensure adequate provision for customers in Longlevens.

The people of Longlevens have made a strong case for keeping a post office in a central location in the neighbourhood. We know that such a post office is economically justifiable as well as socially desirable. Post Office Ltd. would agree with that. We know how hard local people are prepared to work to ensure that their voices are heard. We also know the Government's commitment to investing in strong communities. I therefore hope that if we all—the Government, the Post Office, Tesco and, most important, local people—work together, we can save the service and ensure that Longlevens remains a thriving community and a great place to live.

I confess to being a Tesco cardholder, like many people in Gloucester. I shop at the Tesco store on the cattle market site in my constituency at the weekends. I have held street stalls there; the staff are always friendly and accommodating. That also applies to the staff at the Quedgeley Tesco supermarket, where I have held many surgery sessions. They have been helpful in the past and I am sure that they will be again in future. That is why I believe that it is important that Tesco works with the local community and retains a good relationship.

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Headlines such as "Church attacks Tesco on Post Office closure" and "Boycott threats over closure plans" in The Citizen demonstrate the strength of local feeling on the issue. I intended to say, "By at the very least extending their date of notice until we can secure an alternative site for a post office in Longlevens, Tesco can help redeem itself", but it has already gone a long way towards doing that today. In many ways, it is a shame that it has taken until today for that to happen, but I welcome the decision none the less.

I hope that Tesco will now work with Post Office Ltd., Postwatch and local communities on the reinvention programme to stop the same thing from happening around the country. Earlier today, I was informed of similar incidents in Aylesbury and Swindon. As a result of Prime Minister's Questions and the Adjournment debate, I am conscious that Longlevens has the most famous post office in the country. However, all I want is to ensure that the community continues to have a post office. I am determined that we will succeed.

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