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Westminster Hall

Tuesday 22 July 2008

[Mr. Bill Olner in the Chair]

Post Office Closures (Buckinghamshire)

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—[Mark Tami.]

9.30 am

Mrs. Cheryl Gillan (Chesham and Amersham) (Con): I thank the Speaker’s Office and the shuffle. I am not sure what is involved in securing a debate, but I have applied every week for this one on behalf of my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe (Mr. Goodman) and my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve), who is sitting next to me on the Front Bench. We feel that it is extremely important to highlight the five post offices in my constituency, the two in that of my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe and the seven in that of my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Beaconsfield that are earmarked for closure.

I am familiar with the great work of the Minister for Energy—we have debated on many occasions, not least in the Welsh Grand Committee—but I am disappointed to see him in the Chamber this morning. Only minutes before this sitting, I was notified by the office of the Minister for Employment Relations and Postal Affairs that that Minister would not be able to reply to the debate. Perhaps he is suffering from post office debate fatigue; with the large number of post offices all over the country earmarked for closure, I can imagine that he might be sick and tired, but it is extremely disrespectful to my constituents and the people who are so desperately worried about the loss of their facilities for him to deem that he has a more important meeting. I exchanged words with him on the phone this morning and told him that I would raise that point in the debate.

It is unusual for a Minister not to take up an appointment for a debate in Westminster Hall, particularly on matters of such sensitivity that have been raised with such persistence by my party. I start the debate with regret that I am faced with a different Minister who does not hold the post offices brief, but I am delighted to welcome him to his place. I know that he is a very competent Energy Minister. I hope that he will exhibit the usual reading skills of Ministers drafted in at short notice.

There has been public outcry in my constituency about the threatened closure of five post offices. An unprecedented number of signatures have been put to petitions concerning all five, and I will place those petitions in the bag later today. As the consultation period will not close until after the House has risen, I shall ensure that petitions I receive, right up to the last minute, go to the Post Office and its authorities.

It is not just the people served by the post offices who are protesting and angry about the threatened closures; we have also received tremendous support from our local papers, the Examiner, the Advertiser and the Bucks Free Press. It is not often that the press unite fully behind a mission. It is almost a cross-party issue, because individuals in my constituency, whichever party they
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represent, have been campaigning to save the post offices. The odd political point is made by some of the other parties, but they have clearly rallied behind the five post offices earmarked for closure.

The closures will result in further decimation of our close-knit communities and put pressure on our rural communities, villages and towns, particularly in Old Amersham. I know that the Post Office has deemed that it must close 2,500 branches, and in some ways I do not blame it, but almost half the post offices in the UK double as shops, as the Minister will know. My constituency is no exception. All the post offices concerned have an associated retail outlet. Over the years, post offices have found, particularly under the Labour Government, that their profitability and the amount of trade they can carry on has been reduced, whether by the BBC’s removal of their ability to issue licences or the Government’s removal of the facility for people to receive payments through the post office.

There is an iniquity to the whole process. If one post office is saved, another one goes. I have no wish to put other branches in my constituency under threat, but that is the situation in which we find ourselves. Owing to the very nature of the closure programme, communities are pitted against each other, which is quite disturbing.

Mr. David Lidington (Aylesbury) (Con): Does my hon. Friend share my incredulity that the policy that the Government and Post Office management appear to be pursuing applies a formula to determine which post offices should close and which should remain open? A post office might be economically viable and attract many customers, but if it falls outwith the parameters set by the formula in terms of its distance from a certain population, it can nevertheless be chosen for closure, irrespective of the views of its customers.

Mrs. Gillan: My hon. Friend raises an absolutely valid point that I was hoping to come to later. It is incredible that the Post Office can use formulaic deductions to close our post offices without considering what is happening in the community. The Select Committee on Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform acknowledged that by saying in a recent report on the network change programme that

If the social function of post offices is recognised, it goes against the grain to use any formula whatever for closing them.

I am not here to discuss the mistreatment of the post office network as a whole, but to defend my post offices in Chesham and Amersham. I have experienced the pain of earlier closure programmes in my constituency. I campaigned outside the Chesham Bois post office and the Holmer Green post office, and the Hyde Heath and White Lion road post offices have closed. I hope that the Minister will take this message back and that the Post Office will hear it loud and clear: I do not want our past failures to keep post offices open to be reflected in the latest round of closures.

The further closure of a third of the network in my constituency will have a profound effect on the area. It will inconvenience local residents who use the post office for personal or business matters and those who will have to travel further afield to use postal services at
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other post offices, which will then become stretched beyond capacity. In the very worst cases, some of my local residents will not be able to access post offices at all. I also find it extraordinary that when everybody is so conscious of their carbon footprint and when we are trying to reduce the number of journeys made, the closure programme will increase the number of journeys made by car in my constituency.

I shall start with Chalfont Common post office, which is run by Mrs. Aruna Soni. The post office is one of the most valued services in the area, and to deprive local residents of it seems ludicrous. As well as being situated in an area with a large retired population and a significant amount of social housing in an isolated position up a large hill, it happens to be right next door to a National Society for Epilepsy care facility, whose residents depend wholly on its services. One of the suggested alternatives, Chalfont St. Peter, is 1 mile away and Chalfont St. Giles is 1.9 miles away. Those are wholly impractical alternatives for the people served by the post office. The National Society for Epilepsy facility is home to 120 of my constituents with severe epilepsy. Many of them are wheelchair-bound, and none is allowed to drive, because of their illness. The other day, several residents turned up when I was protesting outside the post office. Many of them have suffered seizures, and so could not use the bus service anyway—were it even adequate—to access a post office. It would be extremely difficult to access that mode of transport.

The area is home to a large number of elderly people, many of whom can no longer drive. The route to Chalfont St. Peter involves an overall descent or climb of more than 120 ft, which includes a 200-yd hill, and negotiation of the A413. That might not represent a challenge to the Minister, or anyone of the younger generation, but it is almost impossible for those older residents. The only bus service—the 355—runs seven times a day, reduced to a mere five times a day for 20 weeks of the year, and there are no seats or shelters at the stops, which makes it wholly unsuitable for frail and elderly people. I hope, therefore, that the post office will remain open, not least so that it can continue to serve people in its immediate vicinity.

Mr. Lidington: Does my hon. Friend share my view that the way in which the Post Office analyses the travelling needs of customers of the sub-post offices it proposes to close leaves a great deal to be desired? Two years ago, when four sub-post offices were closed in Aylesbury, in one case the mostly elderly users were advised to use an alternative that would have required them not only to walk the best part of a mile, but also to cross a railway line on a pedestrian level-crossing, even if they were using wheelchairs or Zimmer frames.

Mrs. Gillan: I am grateful to my hon. Friend. who recalls the case correctly and adds considerably to the point about access difficulties that I am trying to highlight on behalf of my constituents.

The Chalfont Common post office is well equipped to deal with disabled people—it has grip handles on the door, good parking facilities outside and is wheelchair accessible with a doorbell. The service is second to none.

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I turn to the post office in Old Amersham, which is run by Mr. Kuhanandan. That area, too, has a large retired population and a significant amount of social housing. I declare an interest, because I live around the corner from the post office and know it well. The older members of the community rely heavily on the post office, which provides not only an excellent social focus for the town, but an invaluable service for people who in many cases simply cannot make the trip to post offices further afield. The post office is located in the heart of the old town and provides a catalyst for many of the surrounding businesses. If it is ripped out of the heart of the old town, those businesses will suffer.

The suggested alternative post office—the one surviving post office in Amersham since the closure of the White Lion road post office—has already been transferred from Sycamore road to the Londis shop on Hill avenue, which is run by Mr. and Mrs. Patel, but even now it is insufficient for the number of people it is supposed to serve. There are long queues and waiting times, and when its catchment area increases, to cover a population of what I calculate is about 28,000 people, the post office will become completely unfeasible for anyone who does not have a couple of hours to spare.

Mr. Lidington: The experience in Aylesbury since four sub-post offices there were closed two years ago is exactly as my hon. Friend fears for her area. The queues at the remaining Crown post office in the centre of the town have increased, and in my experience it is commonplace to queue for a quarter of an hour or more. Some constituents have complained to me that they have to wait for up to 30 minutes for even the most straightforward of transactions.

Mrs. Gillan: That is quite alarming. I certainly believe that if the catchment area of the one remaining post office in Top Amersham increases to cover the size of the population anticipated, there will indeed be many problems.

Furthermore, the journey from the old town to the top town is not only longer than the 0.9 miles the consultation document suggests, but encompasses either an unlit road or an unpaved and unlit footpath through woodlands, both of which are uphill. Such a journey would be wholly unfeasible for many of the town’s elderly residents—it might even be unfeasible for me! That needs to be taken firmly into consideration.

Furthermore, the post office serves Amersham hospital, which has development plans, as we all know in Buckinghamshire. My hon. and learned Friend the Member for Beaconsfield and my hon. Friends the Members for Aylesbury (Mr. Lidington) and for Wycombe and I, have often hunted as a pack in this Chamber on health matters. I believe that Amersham hospital wants to become a foundation trust and to increase out-patient numbers, which means that there will be increased footfall in the old town, and of course my hospital in Chalfont St. Peter is now faced with closure, so it looks as though there will be more patients in Amersham hospital, which is a mere stone’s throw from the post office.

Old Amersham is charming, and I invite the Minister to visit my constituency—purely for leisure purposes of course. The town is a gem—all Buckinghamshire Members have them—with some of the most beautiful and well
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preserved 16th and 17th-century buildings. Tourism is an important part of life in Amersham; people visit our excellent museum and the old town hall, and come to shop in the town. The small independent retailers are a key part of the old town’s quaint charm, to which the post office is crucial. It is a useful service, and if it is ripped out of the heart of the old town, the whole town will suffer.

I turn to Waterside and Mr. and Mrs. Patel. Waterside is a small but very friendly post office in the most deprived fifth of the Chiltern area, which includes a large hinterland of social housing. I have heard from a number of residents who do not have their own transport. They find the post office’s location crucial to their lives. It lies just outside Chesham town centre and unclogs the Chesham post office, which already has a large number of customers—my hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury is nodding in agreement. Waterside post office acts almost as an overflow or relief valve for the main post office in Chesham, where queues and long delays are often reported through no fault of the postmaster or postmistress, but because the facility is so popular in my area.

The local business community, including industrial complexes, lies in the post office’s hinterland and often uses the post office to send packages—I have stood and watched people do it. They will be inconvenienced by a drive into Chesham, which is often quite blocked with traffic, because it is so popular. The Waterside facility relieves the town centre of blockages caused by too much traffic going through it. It is also registered as a newsagent in the consultation document, but is actually more like a general store. Mr. and Mrs. Patel expect to lose half their income as a result of the post office closure, which would put the shop under threat, and would be a great loss to one of my constituency’s deprived areas.

Another post office in my area is in Botley stores. It is run by Mr. Thuraisingham, and when I visited it some of my constituents were very vocal in their support. The furthest alternatives are Chesham, at 1.7 miles, and Great Hivings, at 2.4 miles, to which there is no direct bus service. As I have said already, Chesham is overloaded, and if traffic is forced back into the town, owing not least to the need to travel up and down the hills in the area by car, congestion and the damage to the environment will increase.

I received a particularly sad note from a constituent of mine, Mr. Walker, who at 85 has a dodgy ankle, and whose wife has had a hip replacement. He said of the Chesham post office:

That is because the post office is so popular; and the Botley stores post office provides it with some relief.

Hilly terrain, a large retired population and a shop under threat—is that not a common theme running through all the closures? It is a crying shame that the fabric that makes up our communities is being deconstructed.

My last store is in the middle of a shopping parade in Hazlemere. Closure may affect the business of the shop, which is surrounded by other businesses and they would certainly be inconvenienced. The bus service to Park parade is spasmodic, if not non-existent. I see that the
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Minister’s eyes are glazing over; he must have heard all this before, but it is a plea from the heart about a constituency that will be badly damaged.

The Minister for Energy (Malcolm Wicks): I assure the hon. Lady that my eyes were not glazing over—I understand the importance of local community. I was simply reflecting on the fact that the trend toward post office closure is not new. Considerable numbers were closed before 1997, but she has not talked about the reasons for that. To suggest that it is a feature only of this Government is misleading.

Mrs. Gillan: I believe that 8,000 post offices have closed since 1979, but that 5,000 of them have closed since 1997, so the trend has been showing an increase. In my constituency, there has been a constant drip-effect from post offices being taken away from our communities.

I shall speak on behalf of my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe for a moment. We have applied for this debate every week since the embargo was lifted, but we were unsuccessful until this eleventh hour. We are grateful for the debate, but my hon. Friend is on a plane, so he is physically incapable of being here. I pass on his apologies. However, I kindly offered to make some points on his behalf. He will suffer the closure of two post offices, one of which is the Desborough road branch in the Abbey ward of Wycombe. One of the three super output areas in that ward is ranked among the most deprived 10 per cent. in the country in terms of income deprivation for older people. That must mark the post office out as one that needs saving.

My hon. Friend was extremely surprised that the Post Office relied on him to notify it of the deprivation data for wards in which post offices are closing, rather than doing the research itself. That is a disturbing development, and I think something similar has happened in my area, for which the Post Office does not seem to have made a report—it might be suffering from closure fatigue. Dare I suggest that its investigation into each and every branch has lost a little momentum as time has passed?

My hon. Friend would like to know how older and disabled people will reach alternative post offices in High Wycombe if his two post offices close, given that in both cases the nearest post office is more than half a mile away, and that High Wycombe has the hilly topography shared by all of us in the south Chilterns. In both cases, if customers from the closing post offices were to move to the two alternative post offices, they could have between 30 and 40 per cent. more customers a week, but there are currently no plans for additional positions at those post offices, so the rise would inevitably cause long queues.

In summary, the Minister must realise that our local communities are being broken up by the Government. The post office network provides a valuable service to some of the most vulnerable people in all our constituencies, which is why each closure must be examined in detail and why a reprieve must be handed out to the cases that merit it. Indeed, there is merit to many of my post offices remaining open because of the people they serve and the service they provide.

For many residents in the villages in my area, at least the possibility exists of hopping into a car and using an alternative branch, but what message does that give when we are supposed to be using our cars less and
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minimising our carbon footprint? However, those are not the people I am particularly worried about; I am worried about those who will not be able to hop into a car. The Minister would find a surprising number of such people if he made a detailed study of each of my post offices. If public transport were better developed, I would have less of a case, but the public transport systems in south Buckinghamshire are weak, and we do not have the luxury of an integrated transport system that would comfortably connect up the remaining post offices. I shall be left with 10 post offices; five of the 15 in my constituency are closing under the formula that my hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury mentioned. That formula is being used without much thought.

I think I have made my case. I know that it is a familiar one, but it is none the less heartfelt by my community and me. I received an e-mail from a constituent that broke my heart. It said:

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