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24 Jun 2008 : Column 26WH—continued

I want to focus on one post office, which is at Hinton St. George in the heart of my constituency. Its planned closure was announced just a few weeks ago, which rubbed salt into the wound following an announcement a couple of days earlier that the five other post offices in my constituency that were earmarked for closure were to be closed. The post office at Hinton St. George was not on Post Office Ltd’s original target list and was
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included only because another post office a considerable distance away in Somerset was saved as a consequence of the consultation in that area.

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD): The only one.

Mr. Laws: The only one in Somerset, and one of two in the entire area.

For those who do not know Hinton St. George—there may be some—it is a beautiful village in the centre of south Somerset. I say that not just because all our villages are beautiful—no doubt they are in all constituencies—but Hinton St. George is particularly striking. It is an historic heritage settlement with a population approaching 500, not including the many people who pass through daily to get to the school, and the many tourists and others from the surrounding catchment area of 1,500 people. The main part of the village is a wide main street lined with hamstone cottages, many of which are thatched. The guide book states that it has a “thriving shop”, which is true, but unfortunately that thriving shop is where the post office is located. It is threatened with closure, although it has been a post office since 1840 and the era of the penny black.

The village is not on a main road, and the roads that come into it are single track with no pavements. That adds to the village’s quiet and calm and the feeling that it is from a pre-car age, but that also means that it is difficult for my constituents to access services outside the village because of public transport and because they cannot walk along roads with no pavements. I shall come to that later.

There is a popular village school, an excellent tea shop, a pub with a national reputation, and, notably for the purposes of the consultation, one of the largest retired populations of any village in Somerset, with 37 per cent. of its inhabitants being of pension age, which is a high proportion by any standards. There is a strong sense of community in the village, and that has been on display since the announcement that the post office was included in those earmarked for closure a couple of weeks ago. There has been a lot of media attention, both in the local area and in the region, about the possible closure. A packed public meeting in the village was attended by half of its residents, and people overflowed from the main village hall to outside.

The postmasters, Peter and Sue Knight, are both popular and have run the post office store for more than 20 years. They are keen to continue the business, and an active campaign committee has already been established in the village. I pay tribute to the committee, which is leading a non-political campaign. It consists of Les Farris, Derek Esp, Liz Davis, Matthew Bryant, David Clements, Andrew Norton and Kerry King, as well as three representatives from the parish council, chairman Fred Voss, and members Jane Bourne and Brian Smith. The campaign hopes to have a public meeting with Post Office Ltd and to meet the Postwatch group. I have already met Post Office Ltd’s regional manager, Tony Jones, who kindly travelled at short notice from Bridgend in Wales to discuss the matter. That was much appreciated.

I hope that the Minister will get the message that there is a lot of passion about keeping the post office open, as there often is, but it is even greater than
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normal. The extremely strong business case for keeping it open is particularly striking, even by the Government’s criteria, and I shall touch on three or four of the issues.

One issue is distance and proximity to other post offices. There is a small postal service at the garage in the village of Merriott, which is about 1.5 miles away, but it has not been earmarked by Post Office Ltd as one of the two alternative post offices in the branch access report because it does not provide the range of services necessary to meet the access requirements. Indeed, it has gone out of business in two different forms and under two different managers during the past 18 months. It has only just found its feet again in the petrol station and retail unit in the centre of the village. I understand that it is doing extremely well under its new managers, but like all units located in larger retail and petrol station outlets in rural areas, it is bound to face many pressures over the years to come. However, because it does not supply a full range of post office services, it does not meet the criteria specified in the consultation.

The other post offices that Post Office Ltd has suggested as alternatives for that community are at South Petherton and Crewkerne. South Petherton is 3.5 miles away, and there is no direct public transport link; and Crewkerne is 3 miles away. The Government’s minimum access criteria, which are supposed to have informed the consultation and closure programme, are that 90 per cent. of the population should be within 1 mile of the nearest outlet, and that clearly will not be met if the closure goes ahead; and in rural areas that 95 per cent. of the population should live within 3 miles. It seems to me that the case for closure fails both tests.

On the question of access and public transport, the Post Office was very open, saying that access to the alternative post offices was not good. The lanes out of Hinton St. George are narrow, single-track roads without pavements. It would be unrealistic to expect anyone, particularly the elderly or those with young children, to walk along those lanes, as they are extremely dangerous. South Petherton has no direct public transport link. On the option of not using public transport, the branch access report states that

It also states that parking is difficult near the post office, which as I said is 3.5 miles away.

Merriott, which is not the main alternative, would be impossible to reach on foot, and the only public transport service that would bring passengers back to the village from which they had departed runs on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays—and that involves waiting two hours for the next bus back.

As for Crewkerne, which is 3 miles distant, the branch access report states:

There are only two bus services a day, one of which involves a two-hour wait for the return service; the other means waiting for four hours and 10 minutes. The parking facilities in Crewkerne are restricted and under pressure. The branch access report claimed that

but there are only four or five spaces, with limited time, and in my experience they are almost always full. The distance to the branches is great, there is little or no public transport, people are not able to walk to them, and the parking facilities are poor.

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Disabled access and access for elderly people is another big issue. The existing shop and post office in Hinton St. George is ideal for the elderly and disabled because it gives them easy access, with generous parking facilities outside. However, as I said earlier, 37 per cent. of people in the village are retired, and a large number are very elderly and find it difficult to walk long distances. The village also has a large number of people with physical and learning disabilities. Although it is easy to gain access to the existing facility in Hinton St. George, that is not the case for the alternatives. Access to South Petherton is a long journey over hilly terrain. The branch does not have disabled access; indeed, there are steps up to the post office, and there is no wheelchair access. As I said earlier, there is no direct bus service.

As I said, it is not possible to reach Crewkerne on foot, and disabled access is not readily available on the bus. Only one bus in the local fleet has a wheelchair lift, but apparently it is broken and the bus company has said that it cannot afford to replace it. Even if it is replaced, there is no guarantee that it would be available on that route. Although there are some low-platform buses in that part of Somerset, there are not many, and they cannot be used on any of the services to and from Hinton because of the narrowness of the lanes in the surrounding area. On distance, public transport and disability, the alternative post offices have serious impediments, so they should not be considered as viable alternatives to the existing post office.

The assumptions that the Post Office makes on the transferability of services—I understand that they are an important part of judging which post offices should stay and which should go—may not be sound. The Minister may be able to clarify the matter, but I understand that we are not allowed to know what those assumptions are, nor to see the ranking list of post offices. They are ranked according to four sets of criteria, and those criteria are fundamental in determining which post offices should stay and which should go. I ask the Minister to consider giving us sight of the criteria for Somerset, because it might help in determining whether assumptions are based on a realistic judgment of the Hinton post office and the alternatives.

I also raise the issue of other post offices in the area that are at risk of closure. I hope that Post Office Ltd will be able to find new sub-postmasters for the post offices at Buckland St. Mary and East Chinnock, as one has left and the other has said recently that he will be leaving. What will happen, given that East Chinnock is relatively near to the area that we are discussing, if either or both of those post offices close? Although East Chinnock is a substitute closure, will there still be a determination to press ahead with finding an additional office to close—even if, by default, another post office closure turns out to be unavoidable?

Given that those other post offices seem similar in some ways, or have even smaller catchment areas than the one in Hinton St. George, could we not see the ranking list at least for the Yeovil constituency element of Somerset in order to determine the relative ranking of those post offices that appear to be at risk of closure by their own means? I am far from convinced that we would find a rational basis for ranking them that far apart. Will the Minister say whether it would be possible to establish how far apart they are, and the basis of that calculation?

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I hope that I have made it clear that we have seen not only a huge decline in the sub-post office network in Somerset over the past 10 or 20 years, but that it has been particularly acute in the past five to 10 years. That is having a devastating impact on many of the rural communities that rely not only on the sub-post office service but on what are often the last retail outlets in quite large villages. I hope that pressure from many hon. Members will eventually persuade the Government to think again about their national strategy, which is well under way. I also hope that by raising these issues today, the Minister and Post Office Ltd can be persuaded to think again about the post office closure at Hinton St. George, which is highly valued in the local community. It seems totally inappropriate to consider it for closure, given the details that I have set out today and given what has been clearly set out in the branch access report.

11.30 am

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Yeovil (Mr. Laws) on securing the debate. He has a pressing issue in the case of Hinton St. George and he is absolutely right to make the case for the post office in that village. I know it well and I also know well some of the individuals who are fighting vigorously for its retention. Is it not most extraordinary that a post office that was not on the closure list was added to that list at a late stage simply because a single post office in Street, in a totally different part of the county, was reprieved because the Post Office had apparently not done its homework sufficiently well on the population in the area? I am sure that if the right hon. Member for Wells (Mr. Heathcoat-Amory) were here, he would say, “But many other post offices in the Wells constituency have been closed.” That has also been the case in Bridgwater, and I am sure that if the hon. Member for Bridgwater (Mr. Liddell-Grainger) were here, he would make that point. The idea that we have this tit-for-tat closure of a post office that until a few weeks ago was considered safe is sufficient to be of concern, and I want to give any support that I can to the villagers in Hinton St. George in trying to retain their post office.

Overall, I have the most overwhelming sense of despair and anger at what is being done to the post office network in Somerset. Let me spell out what has happened in my constituency. We have lost seven post offices to outright closures and a further two are closures in all but name—they are to be replaced by so-called outreach facilities. I see no evidence in the whole so-called consultation process that a single word of what was said to the Post Office against the closure of those post offices was given proper consideration. I do not believe that the process could have gone as far as it did if the Post Office had taken into account the feelings of the community and of every elected representative for the area and the points that were raised, quite properly, in support of those post offices.

We are to lose the post office in Kingsdon. The villagers of Kingsdon were told that they had alternative facilities in Yeovilton, but there are two problems with those alternative facilities. First, the post office is on Royal Naval Air Station Yeovilton and therefore people have to get past two armed marines to access it. Secondly, Yeovilton is also on the list for closure.

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We have also seen the closure of the village post office in Holcombe, which is also the village store. The Post Office had failed to take into account the fact that there was a sheltered housing scheme almost directly opposite the post office, which was serving the needs of those elderly people. It failed to take account of the fact that the post office was also the place at which medicines were dropped off from the general practitioner dispensary at Coleford and that that facility would no longer be available to those who relied on it. None of that was taken into account.

We have the closure of the post office in Bower Hinton. Bower Hinton is about a mile and a half from the centre of Martock, but it is a very hilly mile and a half. The post office serves a quite distinct community. Martock post office, which is a very good post office, is already overused, and there are always queues. The elderly people who were served by the shop and post office in Bower Hinton now have to trek a mile and a half down the road to use a post office where they will have to queue—there are always queues there—and that is considered progress in the service provided.

We have the closure in Bayford. The situation in Bayford is unique. We had letters opposing the closure from not only Somerset, but Dorset, because it was recognised that the post office in Bayford served several Dorset communities, but of course Dorset was a different closure programme, so those communities were not formally consulted. Only the villages in Somerset were consulted, despite the fact that the post office was on the border.

Keinton Mandeville, a very large village, will now be without its post office and is gradually seeing a reduction in the services available to it. We also have the closure of the post office in Sparkford, which I opened a few years ago. Post Office management attended, and they thought that it was a wonderful thing to open the post office there, but they now think that it is an equally wonderful thing to close it. How can we make any sense of such economic planning?

Two of the post offices that will be closed will be replaced by so-called outreach, although there is no clarity about how it is to be provided. It is not clear whether there will be a van, although the service apparently will not be provided through the shops in North Cadbury and Charlton Horethorne. I have asked repeatedly what will happen at the end of the three years, but the Post Office will not tell us. We all assume that three years is what we will get and that the post offices will then close—it is not a reprieve, but a delayed closure.

The consultation was a sham. I would be interested to see the information that my hon. Friend asked for on the ranking of post offices; indeed, I would be interested simply to see the objections that were made, rather than the Post Office version of the accumulated objections. Let us see first hand what people had to say about their local post offices so that we can make a judgment about whether their views were taken into account. Will the Minister give me an assurance that the letters of objection and the plans that were submitted will be available? Do I have to make a freedom of information request to get them? Will my request be blocked for reasons of commercial confidentiality, even though this was supposed to be a public consultation?

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Mr. John Leech (Manchester, Withington) (LD): I, too, would be interested to see the objections raised by local residents. In that respect, I would be interested to hear from the Minister whether there have been problems with consultation letters reaching the consultation team from sorting offices. I have been tipped off that some sorting offices in my area—I do not know whether the problem is the same in Somerset—do not know where to send the objections because the address that they have been given does not include a postcode. As a result, objections are not sent directly to where they should go.

Mr. Heath: I am grateful to my hon. Friend. His area is very different from mine, but that is a valid point. Let me corroborate what he says by mentioning a constituent of mine who was keen to ensure that his objections were taken into account. On the last day of the so-called consultation, he tried to send his letter by registered mail to ensure that it was delivered, but he was told that it was impossible to send registered mail to an address without a postcode. The post office would not, therefore, guarantee delivery of a letter of objection to the closure of a post office. That is an absurd way of doing business, and I hope that the Minister will respond to my hon. Friend.

What has happened underlines the fact that the Post Office and the Government—the Government cannot hide behind the Post Office, because we all know that we are talking about Government policy—are turning their backs on our communities and failing to recognise the valuable role that our post offices play in them. For heaven’s sake, we do not have much in our village communities any more. The pubs and schools are closing, and the churches are becoming redundant, so we are losing our community facilities. The post office is one of the last remaining facilities. As my hon. Friend the Member for Yeovil said, the shop is often dependent on the post office; we cannot have the shop without the post office and we cannot have the post office without the shop, so to lose one is to lose both. We therefore end up with dormitory communities in rural areas that have no services.

The Government and the Post Office are turning their backs not only on our communities, but on environmental policy. What on earth is the point of forcing people to drive further? People will not be using public transport. My hon. Friend explained the paucity of public transport in some of our areas. In my village, there is one bus a week. What use is that in providing a service to anywhere else? We should be encouraging local facilities in villages to cut down on the amount of driving that people must do. Instead of local facilities for local people we have a policy that flies in the face of that and forces people into the hands of Mr. Asda, Mr. Sainsbury and Mr. Tesco in the nearest big town.

Lastly, the Government and the Post Office are turning their back on the elderly. What is happening is a particular blow for the elderly population who often cannot get access to private motor cars. Often they are dependent on the village shop and post office for their needs. It seems that we simply do not care, as a society, about people who happen to be elderly, who are not very well off, and who live in the countryside. That seems to me to be a dereliction of duty on the Government’s part.

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