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I want briefly to touch on those five branches in my constituency which I believe to have been wrongly targeted. The first is the Mill Road branch in North Lancing, an urban community that is set aside on its own in the centre of my constituency. The postmaster is Ali Nahid, who is known and respected by many people. He is one of the postmasters who have been
supporting the protests against the closures. He runs a post office that has been there for 138 years.
The North Lancing residents action group, a particularly well organised and fearsome bunch of local residents who really gauged the feeling of local people, leapt into action and carried out a survey, to which I will return in a few moments. The group had someone standing outside that branch every day for quite a long time. The survey results revealed not 20 customers a week or a dozen a daywhich is the case at the sort of post offices to which the Minister referredbut 133 customers using the shop in which the post office is located every single day, of whom 100 use the post office. That is 100 a day, six days a week, using a post office now faced with closure.
The second post office in my constituency is in Bowness avenue, Sompting. It is run by Carol and Brian Attwater, who were again at the forefront, literally and physically, of the protests of recent weeks. They have two full-time post office desks in the shop as well as the post office counter, and every time I have been there I have seen that both those desks have a queue. The postman who picks up the post from that branch says that he picks up more post there than goes to the main branch in Lancingthe alternative branch, which will be the only Crown post office left serving that whole district. This is not a branch where somebody occasionally ambles in to buy a stamp and ambles out; it is a very busy, well-run sub-post office.
The third branch, the Downlands sub-post office in east Worthing, is run by Michael and Rosemary Wilkins. That branch won the post office of the year award in 2004 and a Royal Mail innovation award because it was obviously doing so many things right in the eyes of the Post Office. Over the past few years, business at that post office has increased, not decreased, even with all the different aspects taken away. The business transacted at that post office has increased and considerable investment has been made in reinforcing the counters and the whole post office paraphernalianot least because we have had some violent raids in some Worthing sub-post offices in recent years. Again, we are talking about a well used post office, but once again that was not reflected in the Ministers comments in the debate of 29 November.
The fourth is the Old Shoreham post office run by postmistress Karen Crook. Again, it is a busy branch. There are several sheltered accommodation blocks just across the road, and the number of over-85-year-olds in the ward is 50 per cent. above the national average. I remind the House that in neighbouring Worthing, 4.6 per cent. of the population is above 85. This is the highest concentration of over-85-year-olds in the whole country, if not Europe, if not the universeperhaps. We have a very high concentration not just of elderly but of very elderly people whose mobility is limited and who rely greatly on post offices like these. Campaigners trying to save that post office have also cited provisions from the Disability Discrimination Act 1995, as we believe that those people are being discriminated against in the lack of access they will have to the alternative post office branches.
The fifth branch is the Broadwater Road Parade branch in Worthing, run by Mr. and Mrs. Myring. I said earlier, and my hon. Friends interjected on the same subject, that we are concerned about the quality
of information used as the basis of these decisions. I found those concerns to be justified when I first visited this branch. Furthermore, the official posters issued by the Post Office for display to notify customers of the closure proposals referred to the Parade branch in Worthing in East Sussex, yet Worthing is in West Sussex. Clearly, the Post Office does not even know the location of its own branches. I have to say that its decisions are based on some rather dodgy data.
We are also greatly concerned because we were told by the Post Office that researcherswe do not know when; perhaps in mufti at the dead of nighthad been visiting these post office branches to do their research on viability. Not a single one of the postmasters I spoke to had met any of those researchers. None of the researchers had revealed themselves to the postmaster or any of his staff in the branches concerned. Nobody had been spoken to locally. What sort of research are those people supposedly gathering?
Although the full figures are not published because of commercial confidentiality, postmasters tell me that more than half the revenue in the branches I have mentioned comes from the post office part of the business. All those branches are situated in shops. It is a common claim of the customers that the quality of service at those sub-post office branches is far better than that at the main Crown post office branches, which they will now have no alternative but to use, and that their accessibility is also greatly superior.
I will now hone down to the Sompting-Lancing area in the centre of my constituency. It is faced with the closure of not 18 per cent. but 60 per cent. of its post offices. Lancingthe largest parish, and technically the largest village in the whole of Englandand Sompting, which merges into it, have a population in excess of 29,000 people. The vast majority of those people will now have access to one main Crown post office, in the middle of a very busy urban village. There will also be a sub-post office out on a limb servicing another part of Adur. That Crown post office is already overwhelmed, even without the extra business that it will have to subsume from the three post offices faced with closure.
That branch is the alternative now put forward by the Post Office. Last Monday, I was told that the typical waiting time in queues at that branch was at least 25 minutes. The Post Office was also surprised to hear that the policy of that main branch is that nobody is allowed to bring more than five parcels in one go; if they do, they must rejoin the queue and present the rest of their parcels 25 minutes later. Just down the road, however, is one of the largest business parks in West Sussex, with no fewer than 160 businesses with a lot of parcel post. What are they expected to do? At the moment, they are well served by the sub-post offices.
The main branch in Lancing also has very limited parking, which is already at a premium, particularly within close walking distance of the post office, and no disabled parking close by. At the branches threatened with closure, particularly at Mill road in Lancing and Bowness avenue in Sompting, parking outside is easy. As I said, nearby Lancing business park has a lot of business postage that relies on those sub-post offices. Not surprisingly, every single one of those businesses
that was approached to sign the petition that I handed in earlier this evening, signed it readily.
The closure of those sub-post offices also has a knock-on effect on surrounding businesses. That issue has been discussed by those involved in Sompting village hall, who are filled with horror at the prospect of losing post office branches locally. They say, in reference to the Bowness Avenue branch, that the Bowness Avenue retail precinct is Somptings only significant neighbourhood shopping centre, and that it is already in decay, with one unit vacant and three occupied by businesses usually associated with run-down facilitiesprinters and janitorial supplies. They also say that the loss of the post office would further greatly reduce the appeal to and income from local shoppers, while a reduction in the cross-selling that arises in such centres would further threaten the businesses themselves and hence the communities that they serve.
On the effect of the closures on communities, Adur district council has produced a detailed paper which was discussed at a full council meeting at which resolutions were passed objecting to the closures. Let me quote from one paragraph in the paper that refers to the impact of the last wave of closures on my constituency in the Adur district.
There have already been branch closures within the Adur District in 2004/05. One of the areas the impact of this was most marked was in Fishersgate,
The loss of such a vital service has fuelled concerns by the community about the general erosion of community based services affecting the social and economic life of neighbourhoods and has been further compounded by the withdrawal of public transport from the area. There is a fear that future Post Office closures may catalyse the degeneration of neighbourhoods. It remains important to local communities and local businesses that Post Offices are not closed where they are needed most.
What happened in Fishersgate, probably the most deprived part of my constituency, and a community that felt really put upon? Last year, its school faced closure. Fortunately the county council saw sense, and after a fantastic campaign by staff and local parents, in which I was involved, the decision was overturned. A few months later, the school went on to win the title of school of the year in the south-east region. That was an important sign for the community, because the previous year it had lost its post office, the shop in which the post office was sited, and most of the shops neighbouring the post office. Residents felt that the heart of the community had been ripped out.
That is what happens when a post office goes. People do not merely say, Oh, we have lost a post office; now well have to drive a mile to a new main post office. It means the loss of the heart of a community to people who have relied on the post office as a community focus, and to businesses which have relied on it for their purposes. That is what happened in the most deprived part of my constituency, and history will repeat itself if the closures proceed in the form that is being suggested.
the access criteria accorded to deprived urban areas...are disappointingly only with regard to the 15 per cent. most
deprived Super Output Areas (SOAs). Adur does not have pockets of deprivation at these levels but however we have several SOAs which fall into the 20 per cent. most deprived. Most notably the communities of Churchill Ward
and Peverel Ward
who would access Bowness Road in Sompting. This is particularly an issue for Adur given that areas of urban deprivation generally exhibit isolation, poor transport links, and poor provision of and access to local services, and are therefore the places in which Post Offices can perform the most valuable social and economic role.
Thirty nine per cent. of respondents visit the Post Office several times a week or more. This rises to 47 per cent. amongst those receiving means-tested benefits and 50 per cent. amongst people aged over 65.
majority of people (74 per cent.) currently walk to the Post Office branch that they use most often.
The Post Office is also guilty of citing misleading travelling distances when it tries to claim that the vast majority of people will still have access to a post office branch within a mile of where they live. That would be all very well for someone who lived in the post office at Bowness avenue, Saltdean, or in the post office in Mill road, Lancing, but many people live to the north or the west of those branches. A large number of my constituents in parts of Lancing and Sompting will be faced with round trips of not 0.9 miles but up to four miles, not as the crow flies but as people walksafely, we hope, but crossing main roads. That is what will be required of a population containing higher than average numbers of elderly and deprived people. That is the reality of what the Post Office seeks to do, notably in the case of the Mill Road post office branch in Lancing. I hope that the House is forming a good picture of my constituency, particularly the part of it that is in Adur. The North Lancing post office branch is up a steep hill.
To access the surviving main post office in Lancing, people will have to cross the A27one of the most congested roads in Sussexand also one of the most dangerous, until a few years ago, when the Highways Agency saw sense and built a pedestrian crossing. In the previous 14 years, 13 people had been killed, many of them students at the school that abuts on to the A27.
Using that footbridge will add another mile to the journey, or one can take ones life in ones hands and use the zebra crossing. Ivan Fallon, a resident of North Lancing, and his volunteers surveyed the alternative routes to the main post office. They found that 134 customers used the shop every day, of whom 100 used the post office. Those 100 were asked what they would do if the post office was not there. Eighty-four said that they would drive to the main post office; only 16 could face the prospect of walking.
Those people would have to use a pedestrian crossing at which, it was calculated, up to 40 vehicles
are held for 20 seconds on average. There will be quite an impact on the traffic flow of that main road. Mr. Fallon and his team also calculated that those additional car journeys to the local post office would generate an extra 25 tonnes of greenhouse gases per annum. Offsetting that environmentally would require the planting of 31 acres of trees every year. Mr. Fallon is a bright man and I would not challenge his figures.
Such environmental considerations feature nowhere in what we have heard from the Post Office. What environmental criteria have been used? The answer apparently is none. The Post Office appears to be immune from climate change and to have no responsibility, liability or duty of care to consider the carbon footprint of its proposals. That is bizarre. At a time when we have seen so much about the progress made at Bali, at home in the real world people are faced with increasing their carbon footprint because, apparently, the Post Office does not give a damn and does not have to give a damn about environmental considerations.
What discussions has the Post Office had with the Highways Agency about the extra traffic on the A27 alone? We do not know; we have not been told. What discussions has the Post Office had with the highways authority, the county council, regarding the extra parking that will be required? We do not know; we are not told. What discussions has the Post Office had with Adur district council on the provision of extra car parking and disabled car parking? We are not told, we do not know and Adur does not seem to know how it features.
What discussions has the Post Office had with the police? At one of our public meetings, two local police community support officers came along and, unusually for people in uniform, were moved to get up and say that if the Mill Road post office went, it would seriously impact on their jobs. These closures have implications way beyond some people having to walk a bit further to buy their stamps.
This is happening without any guarantees about the capacity of the remaining post offices, particularly the North Road post office in Lancing, to cope with the existing demand. A common cry at the public meetings has been that the 400-odd Crown post offices are losing about £70 million. Most of my constituents would rather close the Crown post offices and keep the sub-post offices open, because they provide a better, more efficient service in places where the public actually want to use thembut we are not given that option. Can the Minister tell us why this is so weighted towards closing popular sub-post offices?
All this is happening without any guarantees about the accessibility of the North Road branch to customers, the availability of parking and the sustainability of public transport or any consultation on disability access. As I said earlier to my hon. Friend the Member for Westbury (Dr. Murrison), apparently we are not to benefit, either, from the 500 outreach services that are being offered as a sop to other parts of the country faced with losing their post office branches. All this is happening without the Post Office having any obligation to consider environmental factors in relation to the closures. What has been the impact of the Sustainable Communities Act 2007, under which the Government are to consult local authorities about promoting local
sustainability, including maintaining local services such as post offices? Was it all a waste of time?
The access criteria has fundamentally been applied to mislead. It makes no reference to the fact that some residents in existing Post Office catchments are already travelling a mile to the proposed closure Post offices and the reference to distance to alternative in the consultation plans is misleading. For example if a resident were to live in Cokeham Ward or North Peverel Wards in the Sompting area of the district then for them to actually access their nearest proposed alternative in North Street Lancing would in fact be nearer 2 miles and not the 0.90 miles quoted.
We should also consider the demographics of those wards affected by the sub-post office branch closures. In the St. Nicolas ward in Shoreham the proportion of over-65-year-olds is 23 per cent. compared with the England average of 15.9 per cent. In the Sompting wards it is 21.7 per cent. In the South Lancing ward of Widewater it is 27.7 per cent. Areas with well above average age demographics are affected by the proposed closures.
Let us also look at how these post offices interact with the local council. The payment of council tax and rent is one of Adur district councils largest services, available at local post office counters through the use of payment cards as well as at a number of local shops. That is consistent with Department of Trade and Industryas it then wasproposals, as detailed in another part of the report.
In the first six months of 07/08 approximately £1 million of Council Tax has been paid this way and £500,000 rents have been collected using this method. Approximately 25 per cent. of Adurs Council Tax transactions are paid over the counter. Should more Post Office branches close in the District, this may impact on the Councils ability to offer our own services in local neighbourhoods.
Again, there will be an impact on the local council, when it is trying to do what the Government are urging it douse local post offices. There will be an impact on the councils ability to service its tenants and its council tax payers properly.
Following previous closures in the Adur District, the access criteria determined by the DTI, suggest that the network as it now exists, is the barest minimum needed to provide a proper and effective Post Office counter service to our local residents. Further closures are not substantiated or justified in any part of the district as these would result in a significant loss of essential local facilities for a large proportion of our resident and business population. This is especially the case for Post Offices in the Sompting/Lancing areas, in particular Bowness Road, Sompting.
Those are the words not of a politically motivated local council, but of an officer of my local council in Adur who does her job well and knows her area particularly well, and who knows the impact that closures will have on our populations.
This council further notes the social importance of local Post Office outlets to the well-being of individuals and communities in Worthing. It believes that the latest closure programme is unnecessary and calls on the Government to
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