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29 Nov 2007 : Column 153WH—continued

3.20 pm

Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire) (Con): It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Stafford (Mr. Kidney), who made some perfectly valid points about economic and social changes, which are reducing the footfall in post offices, and ended with some positive suggestions about how one might increase turnover. I commend my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Worcestershire (Peter Luff) and the Select Committee on their report, and on their diligence and persistence. They did exactly what a Select Committee should do—hence the attendance at this debate. Indeed, one could argue that this, rather than the one being held in the Chamber, is today’s topical debate.

I declare an interest: 35 years ago I was economic adviser to the Post Office, which generated me a modest entitlement to an occupational pension, which I declare.

The house names of Hampshire villages tell a story. The Old Station house marks where Dr. Beeching visited us; the Old School house marks the retreat of the village school; the Old Rectory marks the retreat of the Church of England. In my constituency we now increasingly have houses called the Old Post Office. We have one in my village. The Government can say that the process did not begin in 1997—and they are right. In North-West Hampshire we face the prospect of losing, within six months, more than a quarter of our remaining post offices. That is a tremendous shock to the system—a disproportionate and, I believe, wholly indefensible hit. That is roughly twice as many as the national average.

I have had the same dialogue with Mr. Nickolls at the Post Office that I expect other hon. Members have had. He is the executioner of the programme. He has made it clear that if I secure a reprieve in one place, there will be a fresh conviction elsewhere. It is quite clear that the target is 2,500. There are some very perverse results. Ashford Hill lost its conventional post office 10 years ago, and it was relocated to the back of the pub, the Ship. People can go in and ask Reg Rabbetts for a pint of lager and a book of stamps. It is a popular facility, in a village with no bus service. That is now being held out as the model—outreach—but it is now proposed to close the post office at the back of the pub.

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Sandra Gidley: The right hon. Gentleman mentioned outreach. Does he share my concern that the branch access reports have been produced for branches that have been recommended for full closure, but that we do not have the same, albeit limited, information for those for which outreach is proposed? It is very difficult to make the relevant comparisons.

Sir George Young: I take the hon. Lady’s point, which brings me to St. Mary Bourne, a resourceful village that raised money and built a village shop and post office 10 years ago. That is a community shop of exactly the type that has been mentioned, but it is now going to be closed. Outreach has been negotiated, which means that the post office will remain in the same shop, but the strong room in which the post office was located must be destroyed and relocated, at some cost, alongside the counter. Nevertheless, Mr. Rod Sutcliffe has negotiated a skilful and successful outreach deal. I have also had a petition from a small and popular rural post office in Linkenholt and another from the post office in St Giles road in Tadley. I visited all the post offices except one. One post office has, at the Post Office’s request, spent a large sum investing in a strong room: it completed that about a year ago but is now about to be closed.

Two neighbouring villages—Goodworth Clatford and Anna Valley—are going to lose their post offices. If I had to single out an example, although it is invidious to do so because I do not think that any of these post offices should close, the most effective campaign has been run by Goodworth Clatford, where Richard Green has headed a successful campaign called SOCPO: Save Our Clatford Post Office.

Taking up the point made by the hon. Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey (Derek Wyatt) and the hon. Member for Stafford, my point is this: two of the three local authorities in my local area are interested in saving the post offices. I have had a dialogue with Mr. Nickolls and asked whether, if the local authority wants to rescue a post office, this can be done. The answer was that it is difficult but, in theory, yes. Perhaps the local authorities place a higher value on keeping these institutions going than do the Government. Can local authorities find the information that they need from the Post Office? No. They need to know how much they have to put in to keep the post office open, but they cannot get that information.

I hope that we get at least one thing out of this debate: the Minister should instruct the Post Office that, where a parish, district or county council, in good faith, wants to open negotiations with the Post Office to keep a post office open, it should be given the necessary information. If the Government are serious about devolving decision making and empowering local communities, it would be monstrous if a centrally driven programme led to the closure of popular local institutions, even though local people were prepared to put up the money so that the Government were not out of pocket.

I hope that the Minister will at least accede to that request so that negotiations can get under way to stop the unnecessary closure of successful and popular post offices.

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3.32 pm

Mr. Alan Reid (Argyll and Bute) (LD): I congratulate the Trade and Industry Committee on its excellent series of reports on the future of the post office network.

I want to concentrate on the current round of closures. The Committee is right to say that the consultation period should have been 12 weeks, as set out in the Cabinet Office guidelines, instead of six. One example of why we need a longer consultation period is the post office at Kirn in my constituency, which is one of those on the closure list.

Echoing what the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young) said, the financial information has to be given to groups that want to try to keep their local post office open. In Kirn, that is not the local council, but a local community group called EnviroKirn, which wants to submit a proposal to run the post office as a community business. However, EnviroKirn has been told by the Post Office that it would have to submit detailed financial proposals within the six-week consultation period, which is clearly nowhere near enough time. In their response to the public consultation, the Government said:

In EnviroKirn, we have a bona fide, well established community group that has advanced a proposal to take over and run its local post office as a community business. I hope that the Government will speak to Post Office Ltd and encourage it to engage constructively with EnviroKirn so that we can check that it is advancing a community business proposal that stacks up and is financially sound. I hope that that proposal will be considered seriously by the Post Office.

Kirn, a village just outside the town of Dunoon, is an example of how the closure of many local post offices would have a severe impact on the local economy. The closure of Kirn post office will, as well as forcing pensioners to travel to the main post office in Dunoon, seriously damage the viability of the other shops in the village, because people collect their pensions and benefits in the village post office and spend much of the cash in the shops round about. However, if Kirn post office is closed, people will be forced to travel to the main post office in a supermarket in Dunoon.

Exactly the same arguments apply to the Hillfoot street post office on the other side of Dunoon, where the local post office is also under threat of closure and is surrounded by local shops. Closing Kirn and Hillfoot street post offices will mean people collecting their pensions and benefits in the main post office in the supermarket and, having been forced to travel there, they will inevitably spend their money in the supermarket, meaning that the profits from the money they spend will go out of the town rather than being collected by local shops and re-circulated in the community.

Mr. Brown: I am listening closely to what the hon. Gentleman is saying. Can I just draw to his attention the following example? Some two or three years ago, when Safeway supermarkets were taken over by Morrisons, Morrisons decided that it wanted every single post office out of its premises. There was a major campaign in Dumfries in my constituency to oppose
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that. I discovered from inquiring into what was happening that more than 50 per cent. of the business that was being transacted through that supermarket was, in effect, business from outlying villages. People came to the supermarkets: they did not use the sub-post office in their village, but went to the supermarket. The advantage of the post office coming out of the supermarket was that it drove people back to the villages.

Mr. Reid: The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. If the only post office is in a supermarket, it is taking money away from local shops. However, it is important to note that supermarkets get taken over by other companies and that can have knock-on effects.

The same arguments that apply to Dunoon apply to Campbeltown, where two of the town’s three post offices are on the hit list and the only remaining post office is in a supermarket. Pensioners will have further to go to collect their pension, local businesses will suffer and there are also doubts—as in Dunoon—about whether the remaining post office will be able to cope, because there are often long queues. Closing two of the three post offices in the town will obviously add to the queues. I doubt whether the Post Office has done serious analysis on whether the remaining post office can cope.

In Helensburgh, another town in my constituency, the East Princes street post office, a very busy and profitable business, is on the hit list. I cannot see how closing it makes any sense. Helensburgh has a population of more than 10,000 and is therefore considered as urban under the Government’s definition, under which 95 per cent. of the total urban population of the UK must be within 1 mile of a post office. Yet closing East Princes street post office will leave a large proportion of the east end of Helensburgh more than a mile from the town’s main post office. I am not sure whether the Post Office is aware of it, but there are plans for substantial extra house building at the east end of the town, meaning that a much greater proportion of the town’s population will be more than 1 mile away.

Jo Swinson: On nonsensical urban post office closures, may I draw my hon. Friend’s attention to Kelvindale post office in Glasgow, which the Post Office asked the Postmaster General to take on just 18 months ago and which is nearly half an hour’s walk from any of the alternatives? A great campaign run by Katy Gordon has collected more than 700 signatures against that. Does that not show that the Post Office has not done its homework on these closures?

Mr. Reid: I am grateful for that intervention. I agree with my hon. Friend, in that I have severe doubts about the homework that the Post Office has done.

Closing the post office in East Princes street will mean that pensioners have to travel to the main post office instead. That will be inconvenient for them and will mean the loss of the social value that a small local post office brings. Also, I do not see where the financial benefits to the taxpayer will come from in closing that profitable business. The main post office struggles to cope at present. Clearly, extra staff will have to be recruited there to replace the staff who will be made redundant at East Princes street, so there will be no saving in staff costs.

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The Post Office consultation document suggests that, because pensioners have free bus travel, they will not have to incur any extra expense taking the bus to the main post office. However, the taxpayer clearly picks up the bill for those extra bus journeys. Surely the cost to the taxpayer of the extra bus journeys for every pensioner who collects their pension at a post office must outweigh the cost of paying the pension through their local post office. I ask the Government to take all those extra costs into account before proceeding with the closure programme. I hope that the Post Office will take on board all the points that I have made and will keep some of or all the post offices on the hit list open.

The Select Committee report makes excellent points about the future of the network after the closure programme. Even if post offices are not compulsorily closed, unplanned closures will inevitably happen unless the Government give the remaining post offices enough business to make them profitable, and of course unplanned closures will lead to the Government’s access criteria no longer being met.

As the report notes, the future of the Post Office card account is vital. It should be extended to include simple functions such as making cash deposits. In fact, POCA should be developed into a basic bank account. That is the route that the post office has gone down in France and Germany, and I urge the Government to go down it in this country. A Post Office bank account would make the network sustainable because of the network’s wide reach and high level of public recognition and trust. Making the Post Office into a bank would enable the Government to meet their own objectives of financial inclusion. I urge the Government to adopt the Post Office bank solution, as I believe that it is the only way to make the post office network viable in the long term.

3.42 pm

Ms Celia Barlow (Hove) (Lab): Our local communities are the bedrock on which our wider society is formed. Hove and Portslade, which I represent, are fortunate to have a strong sense of local community, the cornerstone of which is often to be found on the local high street. Those pockets of small independent traders provide so much more than just a local facility at the end of people’s roads; they provide a means through which a local community can interact and bond with one another. Faces that become familiar over time soon become friends. In turn, those who are more able look out for those who are less so. The very existence of small independent traders binds the local community together, which in turn fosters strong and enduring local relations.

I am aware that my hon. Friend the Minister is not responsible for the closure of individual post offices, but his Department has been responsible for the criteria on which post offices are to close. That is what I would like clarification on. He has kindly agreed to meet me and local traders on 13 December, for which I thank him.

The Richardson road area of shops in Hove consists solely of independent shopkeepers. The existence of that parade of shops represents much more than that to local residents. Indeed, a local writer, Christopher Hawtree, has described it as a nook and a village. The consultation on the closure of post offices specifies that among the
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criteria that need to be taken into consideration is the impact of closure on local trade. How much weight would the Minister put on those economic factors, and how would the Post Office assess that impact, which is far from clear?

The shopkeepers consider themselves the backbone of the local community, providing a truly personal service to the surrounding area. Local residents can purchase all the necessities of everyday life there. At the centre of those facilities is the local post office, which faces the prospect of closure. That would, I believe, mean the gradual break-up of a group of independent businesses that, although independent from mainstream commercial ownership, are completely dependent on one another for their sustainability.

The local butcher, John O’Connell, born and brought up in the area, said:

He said that the Post Office should be taken over by the Government. The baker, Clayton Morris, of Upper Crust sandwich shop, said:

Kevin Moffatt, the florist, said:

All those traders are terrified of the impact of the closure of their local facility.

Demographics are supposed to be an issue, and many residents in the immediate area are elderly people who find the prospect of travel, even over a relatively short distance, daunting. The alternative post offices suggested are both across busy roads. Many local residents are senior citizens for whom an extended journey to the post office of even half a mile would be very problematic. For those of limited mobility, a bus journey could prove difficult and the cost of a taxi prohibitive. It seems unfair that those with physical disadvantages or disability should be deprived of access to what is seen by many to be an essential service.

The Government have placed a distance limit on the closure of post offices, which seems a sound idea. However, due to the high density of housing in my constituency, a large proportion of my constituents do not own cars. Is the Post Office looking into that? If demographics are a consideration, as they are supposed to be, should not the age and mobility of users of the post office be taken into consideration or at least investigated? As well as relying on the post office for their pensions, many elderly residents who are not online see it as their only link to family and friends who have moved away.

We have already seen for ourselves the devastating effects that large supermarkets have had on local high streets throughout the country. We are fortunate in Hove and Portslade that despite rapidly expanding numbers of supermarkets, we have managed to maintain our independent local shopping areas and a sustainable community, which I believe should be upheld. Independent businesses are interdependent in a way that our larger supermarkets simply are not. We have seen all too often
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in recent years the domino effect that occurs when a key business is removed from the local infrastructure. Streets that once were bustling and the heart of a community become unsustainable as residents move further afield for the services that they need. I wonder whether sustainability should also be a major criterion.

To the west of my constituency, we face the closure of another local post office. The Trafalgar road post office lies within a diverse local community with a very strong sense of identity. It has been run by the Patel family as part of their convenience store for about 20 years. Were that post office to close also, not only would many have to travel much further afield to buy a stamp, but there would be a decline in the businesses in the area. However, that is not my major concern about Trafalgar road, though it is that of my constituents.

My major concern is that, when I had a meeting with Post Office Ltd regarding the possible closure of my two local post offices, it said that it was unaware that a planning application had been passed for the Frank Gehry-designed King Alfred site a very short distance away, which includes 650 flats and is supposed to be finished within three years. I suspect that the Post Office is also unaware that part of the South East England development agency plan is to build 10,000 new homes at Shoreham harbour, for which the post office to which I am referring would be the closest local post office.

I echo the comments of the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute (Mr. Reid): exactly how were those decisions made? It is fair enough to say that it is the job of the MP and the local people to import this issue into the consultation process, but a decision had already been made, before it even got to us, that those were the post offices that the Post Office felt were appropriate for closure. I feel that there is a lack of transparency about the commercial decisions made. I am unaware of exactly why the Post Office has chosen to close, for example, the Richardson Road post office. That should also be part of the consultation process. We should be given all the information, including financial information, from the Post Office, before these decisions are made.

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