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4 Mar 2008 : Column 384WH—continued

The first post office is in Mere Brow, which is a small village of about 500 people. The whole area is very rural and the post office is open three days a week. Postwatch has expressed concern about the closure mainly because of the public transport problems of getting to an alternative
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post office. The two nearest post offices are in Banks and Tarleton, but there is not a good public transport system to them. I recognise that the existing post office, which is in someone’s home, is very small, but were that post office to close without an alternative, it would create real problems for people who do not have access to their own vehicles. At the very least, if that post office closes, the opportunity should be taken to use a mobile post office, and park it in the car park of the village hall, which is used a couple of times a week for pensioners’ groups. That would be an ideal way of ensuring that people who cannot get to an alternative post office at least have access to post office services.

The second village affected is Much Hoole where the post office is in the village shop. The previous owner of the business reduced the hours about a year or so ago. The new owner wants to increase those hours, but nothing has happened because of this consultation. The real concern that came across to me at that meeting of local residents was that if the post office was closed it could also lead to the loss of the village shop. That is something that the Post Office should seriously take into account when considering closures. It should look to see whether the reduction in the hours has led to a loss of business. If the shop was open longer, would some of that business return?

The village of Bretherton, in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Chorley (Mr. Hoyle)—it will be in South Ribble at the next election—lost its post office a few years ago. The residents of Bretherton were told that their next suitable post office was in Much Hoole. Therefore, they are now in the position of not just losing their own post office, but potentially losing the post office to which they have been directed. Residents in Much Hoole will have real problems accessing alternative post offices. The nearest one is in Walton Bridge, which is about a mile away. Access to it is across a busy main road, which is a problem for anyone with disabilities, and mums with young children find it difficult to use some of the footpaths in the area.

The third post office is in the village of Hutton. Again, it is in the village shop. The nearest post office is in a busy supermarket in the village of Longton. One could argue that that post office would be a suitable alternative, but I reiterate the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Chorley about access for people with mobility problems. The advantage of the post office in Hutton is that people with mobility problems can park right outside. It is not easy to park outside the post office in Longton because it is at the back of the premises. Access can be difficult because it is busy. Given the access problems at the Longton post office, the post office should look seriously at the implications of closing Hutton.

The fourth post office is in Bent lane, in Leyland. There are two other post offices in Leyland that could possibly be used. Both of them are on busy main roads, which makes it difficult to park outside. One of the issues that was expressed very strongly to me last week was that many residents with mobility problems would find it very difficult to access either of the alternatives. They like the Bent lane post office because they can access it in their wheelchairs or drive there and get in and out of the premises easily.

What struck me as extraordinary was that out of the 500 or so households that I wrote to, I received 150 replies, and with just three or four days’ notice of a
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meeting at 5 o’clock on a Thursday evening, 80 to 100 people turned up. That shows the strength of feeling that exists. The properties that I wrote to are in a block that is bordered on one side by the west coast main line, and on the other side by the M6, with main roads to the north and south. It is mainly elderly people who live there. There are a lot of bungalows and some shelter schemes. The passion in that area to retain the post office was clear on day one and was much stronger than I expected.

The Post Office needs to review the Bent lane closure and recognise how important the post office is to the area. It also needs to look at the future development of the old Royal Ordnance factory site. In Buckshaw village, which is being built, 600 or 700 properties are in my constituency; the rest of the development is in the constituency of my hon. Friend. What has come through to me, both from that meeting at which there were several residents of Buckshaw village and from letters that I have received, is that Bent lane is the obvious post office for Buckshaw village, which is an expanding development. My hon. Friend passed a letter to me that he had received from one of his constituents in his part of the village. When I spoke to the Post Office several weeks ago, it was clear that it had not taken into account the future development of Buckshaw village. There is no post office in the village, which will end up as a community of several thousand people. Such a community would usually be expected to have a post office of its own. If there is not to be one, the Post Office needs to look very carefully before it considers the closure of any of the post offices that are the obvious ones for residents to use.

I think that I have covered most of the points. I emphasise that I do not want to see any closures in my constituency and I have done all that I can to make the best case possible. The Post Office should be prepared to listen very carefully to the strong views of constituents.

11.47 am

Geraldine Smith (Morecambe and Lunesdale) (Lab): Post office closures are nothing new. Long before I was an MP, I remember fighting a campaign to save Morecambe’s main post office from closure. The Conservatives were in power. The leader of the campaign against the closures—he fought a wonderful campaign—was my right hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull, West and Hessle, now the Secretary of State for Health. My right hon. Friend the Member for Neath (Mr. Hain) and Glenys Kinnock came up to support the campaign. It is amazing how things change over the years.

Mr. Hoyle: Were they successful?

Geraldine Smith: They were successful and Morecambe Crown office is still open.

The staff recently told me that they had concerns about what will happen in 2011. Even people working in the Crown post office network do not feel secure in their employment. When I worked on a post office counter more than 25 years ago, I felt that I was in a secure job. People were well trained and quite well paid. That is certainly not the case at the moment. People feel very insecure and morale is low. We must bring some stability to the post office network.

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In the years that I have been in Parliament, a lot of business has been taken away from the post office network. Some of it has happened through the natural changes to the way in which people live. More and more, people have pensions paid through bank accounts, and some people pay their TV licence through the post. The changes have been difficult, but the Government have failed to find new business for post offices. It is a shame that we had such a strong network throughout the country that could have been used as a Government agency; it is a wasted opportunity.

However, we are where we are, and we have been through closure programmes. In 2003, I did not oppose all of the closures that were proposed for Morecambe. Some of the urban branches were close together, and it was hard to put up an argument why they should not close. I told my constituents at the time, “Use it or lose it,” which is still the case with some post offices. I am not fighting to save every single one—some have a very low number of transactions and cannot be justified—but the programme has gone too far. The Government are in danger of losing the public service ethos and simply treating everything as a business, but the Post Office is about public service, particularly in rural communities. I represent a large rural constituency, and I know how much villages in it value their post office services.

Everyone agrees that the current consultation has been a bit of a sham and people do not feel that their views will be taken on board. There is strong opposition to the closure of three post offices in my constituency, and we must wait and see whether the Post Office takes the valid objections to that on board. The local newspaper, the Lancaster Guardian, is mounting an excellent campaign to champion the post offices’ cause, because many village post offices around Lancaster, and many in the city itself, are threatened with closure.

I should like to say something about those three post offices in my constituency that are wrongly, mistakenly, being closed, beginning with Nether Kellet, which is a small village. The post office there is the village store, so if it closes, the village loses its shop, which is important. I represent a tourist area, and the post office acts almost as a tourist information centre for people who go through the village. The nearest branch, in Bolton-le-Sands, is difficult to get to—there is no reliable public transport and people would have to change buses to get there. Such a journey is out of the question for pensioners and people with disabilities, who are the core of the people who use the Nether Kellet branch. People who have no transport, who may have lived in the village for years and years, or those who can no longer drive, need the service and to use the shop and post office together.

Post offices in villages provide human contact during normal working hours. People know that if they have a problem, they can go to the post office and find someone in an emergency, or if they simply need some support. Village offices play a vital role for the community. The Post Office should look seriously at the closure of the Nether Kellet branch.

Another office, Kellet road in Carnforth, is very different. I know the sub-postmistress, Debbie Buckley, well—I worked with her more than 25 years ago. She and her husband Paul have a thriving business, they are really good with people, and their shop and post office
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is successful. It serves a community in which there is some deprivation and a large number of elderly pensioners; it serves a large estate in Carnforth. People use it—it is not uneconomical; it is a very successful business, so I have no idea why the Post Office is closing it. The Post Office will tell me that that information is commercially sensitive, but I know the person who runs the office and what the figures are, and there is no way that it should be closed.

Finally, I should mention the third office. The chairman of the parish council, Michael Rothwell, talks about the matter better than I can. He writes:

the nearest office—

That is not too much to ask because the office is so important to the village. I ask the Post Office to look seriously at the closures in my constituency, because I think that they are wrong. We will see how good the consultation is and what the Post Office comes back with.

11.55 am

Mrs. Joan Humble (Blackpool, North and Fleetwood) (Lab): Given the lack of time, I shall not go through the individual post offices in my constituency that are proposed for closure; rather, I shall pick up on the key themes that have emerged in the debate. I congratulate especially my hon. Friend the Member for Chorley (Mr. Hoyle) on securing the debate, and all Lancashire Members who have taken the time to attend.

I listened with interest when my hon. Friend the Member for Pendle (Mr. Prentice) spoke about the petition that his newspaper established because the Blackpool Gazette has collected several thousand signatures. I was appalled to hear that when the staff from my hon. Friend’s newspaper went to present the petition, there was nobody there to accept it. I shall be in touch with the editor of the Blackpool Gazette to find out what he experienced, because it is appalling practice for the Post Office not to recognise the strength of local feeling that is so well put together by our local newspapers.

The debate has highlighted the cumulative effect of several years of closure programmes, and I especially endorse the comment made by my hon. Friend the Member for Chorley about the post office to which people had previously been referred, but that is now designated for closure. That is exactly what has happened in Blackpool. My local post office in Homefield road closed in 2003-04, and I was told to go to the Red Bank road branch. What is now being proposed for closure?
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Red Bank road is. In practice, the cumulative effect will be that more and more Blackpool residents go to our central post office.

The Minister knows from correspondence with me and my colleague, my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool, South (Mr. Marsden), that the relocation of our central post office to the basement of WH Smith is entirely unsatisfactory. Sadly, before Christmas, an elderly constituent of mine had a fall going down the stairs into that basement and died a few days later. I have also had many complaints from people who cannot use the lifts. WH Smith put a new lift in, but the two lifts are not sufficient for the elderly, people with a disability, and parents with pushchairs, who all want to use it. It is claustrophobic in the basement. The sub-post office closures will mean that more and more people use the basement in WH Smith, which is inadequate.

The consultation in Blackpool—the same applies to some extent in Morecambe—does not take visitors into account. Red Bank road post office is just off the promenade and is used by visitors as well as local residents. What are they going to do in future? That also applies to the Lighthouse post office in Fleetwood.

Finally, we have spoken about business being taken away from post offices, but the Post Office is trying to attract new business. It has announced the introduction of a Christmas savings club following the Farepak fiasco and I have seen adverts on the television for new insurance products. Surely this is a time when we should be standing back and saying, “Let the Post Office build up that new business.” Let us not take away these essential facilities at this point. We should be backing post offices, not allowing them to close.

11.59 am

Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley) (Con): I take note of what you said about wanting to start the wind-ups at 12 o’clock, Mr. Atkinson. I hope that I will be allowed 60 seconds to answer the question posed by the hon. Member for Pendle (Mr. Prentice) which was, to quote Lenin, “What is to be done?” Yesterday, I was standing only a few feet from Lenin’s tomb in Moscow, so perhaps I can have the opportunity to say what can be done.

The first thing is to stop the closure programme, take a breath, and see what can be done. Hon. Members have mentioned initiatives that could be introduced in post offices: local authority services, Government services and private services, including banks and mortgages. All sorts of things, including the TV licence, could be introduced in post offices.

Everyone knows that post offices are vital, and everybody knows that not all are economic. It is not communist to want to save them—it is common sense. We know that subsidies will be necessary if the branch network is to stay open. I agree with the hon. Member for Pendle that once it has gone, it will be gone for ever. It is like the railway structure of the 1960s. People say, “My goodness, if only we could reintroduce it,” but we cannot—it is too late. Let us at least value what we have, and not do away with it.

We know that there is a cost, but we also know that there will be a tremendous cost if we carry on with the closure programme. There will be a cost to our villages and towns, to our elderly people, to those who do not
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have transport, and to those in rural areas who do not have a regular bus service. All that should be put into the mix before the Government allow one more post office to close.

12.1 pm

Sarah Teather (Brent, East) (LD): I had offered to be slightly brief so that more Members could speak, but the hon. Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans) was so extremely brief that I have all the time that I need.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Chorley (Mr. Hoyle) on securing the debate, which is on a very important issue. Hon. Members from every part of the country are concerned about it, and there is widespread anger about the post office closure programme. It is probably the most important matter raised in my constituency. The hon. Gentleman spoke about a number of post offices in his area. He also spoke about low car use in his constituency, saying that the closure of post offices would have a particular impact on the vulnerable.

The hon. Member for Pendle (Mr. Prentice) spoke about the impact of closures on rural areas, as did the hon. Member for Chorley. He also said that post offices were a social good. The hon. Member for South Ribble (Mr. Borrow) said that the process would result in the loss of village shops, as did the hon. Member for Morecambe and Lunesdale (Geraldine Smith). The hon. Member for Blackpool, North and Fleetwood (Mrs. Humble) spoke about the petitions that she has been collecting and the cumulative effect of closures in her constituency.

My hon. Friend the Member for Southport (Dr. Pugh) was keen to speak today, but unfortunately he has had to attend a Select Committee hearing in Burnley. However, he has told me how concerned he is about the loss of two post offices in his constituency. He feels that they are based on poor data and that they will have a real impact on the elderly.

There is widespread anger about post office closures but, as the hon. Member for Pendle said, post offices closures are not a new phenomenon. Since Labour came to power, 4,000 have been closed. The Government now propose closing a further 2,500, and 3,500 were closed when the Conservatives were in power.

Another theme in the debate, which echoes the feeling in my constituency, has been that the consultation is a sham. The Minister has said at Question Time that in the rare cases when a local campaign manages to save a post office, the Post Office will be required to close another next door. Communities have a real sense of helplessness. They do not wish to arbitrate with the Post Office on which post office ought to be closed; they want to feel that the Post Office will listen to their case for the local post office.

There is also great frustration that six weeks is not long enough for a community, working with the council and local businesses, to put together a package to save a post office. When questions have been asked in the House, the Minister has made it clear that the presumption will always be for closure because most post offices are not viable. He has clearly said that there is a hidden subsidy. There is a real sense that it does not matter what people want; they will never be able to put together a package to persuade the Post Office that the local post office ought to be saved.

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