Previous Section Index Home Page

22 July 2008 : Column 175WH—continued

His final sentence is poignant:

the email was sent to the Post Office—

I hope that the Minister will reply to the debate and take the points from me, my constituents, my newspapers and my postmasters and postmistresses back to the Department and tell it that we would like a reprieve for all our post offices in Chesham and Amersham.

9.57 am

Mr. Dominic Grieve (Beaconsfield) (Con): It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs. Gillan). I thank her and congratulate her on securing the debate.

I have the misfortune of having more proposed post office closures in my constituency than any other Buckinghamshire MP—no fewer than seven. They are the Denham Garden Village, Farnham Royal and Loudwater branches, the Old Town post office in Beaconsfield, the Oxford road post office in Denham, the Parade in Bourne End, and a branch in Wycombe lane, which is the road between Wooburn and Loudwater. The number of proposed changes contrasts with the earlier round in which my constituency seemed to escape lightly. Perhaps that is why this is now being inflicted on us.

There has been quite a movement to preserve local post offices and stores in my constituency over the years. In one case, in Hedgerley, which, mercifully, is not on the list, there was a long battle to preserve a post office when the old post office building was shut down.
22 July 2008 : Column 176WH
That was done by putting in a portakabin and reopening the post office at a new site, which proved very successful. There was a great deal of local support for that.

The area that I represent is very wealthy. It is often commented on that the wealth indicators for south Buckinghamshire rank it as one of the two or three wealthiest constituencies in the United Kingdom. One area, Gerrards Cross, is without doubt the wealthiest place, per capita, in the UK—both in its north and south wards. As the Minister will understand, however, no one is more disadvantaged than those who are poor in a wealthy area. My hon. Friend touched on that when she pointed out that our area has one of the highest rates in the UK of car ownership per household, at 2.6 cars per household, and that, for those who do not have cars, access to public transport is almost nil.

Notwithstanding the wealth, there are plenty of pockets of clearly identifiable deprivation in my constituency, where either those who are on low incomes or the elderly—and sometimes the two combined—live. When one looks at the list of proposed closures, it is noteworthy that, with perhaps one exception, each and every one can be properly defined without exaggeration as situated in an area with a relatively high presence of low-income families. I do not know whether that is just an accident or whether it correlates with the way in which the Post Office has carried out its survey, but the correlation is absolutely clear.

I shall give the Minister a couple of examples. Denham Garden Village, as the name implies, is a residential area that has been set aside for elderly people in Denham. It used to be a Licensed Victuallers national home, but it has been taken over by a housing trust for the elderly, Anchor Denham. The post office is located in the middle of the complex and attracts a range of users. Admittedly, some residents may have gone to live there with some capital assets, but many residents have few. It is clear that mobility is a serious issue, and the post office, as part of the village centre within that area for the elderly, is of particular value.

Farnham Royal, on the edge of my constituency near Slough, is an area with clearly identifiable indices of deprivation, as, indeed, are parts of Denham parade on Oxford road in Denham. Wycombe lane post office also caters for a very mixed area, and when one comes to old town Beaconsfield, to which I shall return in a moment, other considerations come into play. The first thing that I note when I look at the list is that in those places, the post office appears to serve the local community well.

I wrote to the postmasters in my constituency about the matter, but, because of the debate’s short notice, I am afraid that some of them have not been able to reply. However, I thought that one was particularly worth quoting, as the author asked for anonymity. She did so, because, she said:

which I find absolutely scandalous and totally pointless. She went on to say:

They were then supplied. The post office is situated in the middle of the village; it has been there for at least 50 years; it is the hub of village life; it has a pedestrian
22 July 2008 : Column 177WH
crossing immediately in front of the premises; there is parking nearby; it is much used by elderly and disabled customers; the alternative post office does not have those facilities; and there are three sheltered housing sites within easy reach.

Another post office that I mentioned a moment ago was the one in old town Beaconsfield. There is always a tendency for MPs to pontificate on places in their constituency to which they may be—in truth, because constituencies are big places—only occasional visitors, but, as it happens, the post office in old town Beaconsfield is situated next door to my Beaconsfield office. I go to it frequently, it is a one-stop shop, I post my letters there and I buy things there. It is a busy post office, there are frequently queues for the counter and my impression is that it provides a valuable local service. Although Beaconsfield is in part very wealthy, 30 per cent. of its housing is social housing, and much of that is located in the older part of the town.

I have before me the distances from post office to post office, and closure would mean that people would have to walk 0.7 miles to the new town office, which is along a lengthy road. The alternative is Holtspur post office, which is 1.25 miles away and would involve a not very pleasant walk along the A40—out of town completely. I am not even sure that there is continuous pavement along the road’s full length. The old town post office mainly serves the area to the south, and the distances from individuals’ homes to the other offices would consistently exceed 1 mile. I am quite satisfied about that from my knowledge of the area, and, as I said to the Minister, many people who use the old town one-stop community shop in Aylesbury End are very elderly. There is an Abbeyfield Society home situated about 500 yd to the south, most of whose residents are more than 90 years old, and, if they go out into old town Beaconsfield, they will use the post office. I meet some of them there.

I noted the Minister’s intervention on my hon. Friend when he said that post office closures have been going on for a long time. They were initiated under previous Governments—although the closures have greatly accelerated in the past 10 years—and I am the first to accept that the Government and the Post Office have to respond to social changes in the use of post offices. However, I must say that from the way in which the list has suddenly been magicked up, and from the criteria that have been applied, I really wonder whether there has been an adequate analysis of each post office’s viability.

The Wycombe lane post office postmaster, Mr. King, has accepted closure, but it is worth reading out his letter. He wrote:

He goes on to make the point that there is another post office, which—I have to accept—is not too far away.

It is invidious to leave any post offices out, but I have to draw up a priority list, and in respect of Denham Garden Village, Bourne End and Beaconsfield post offices, I find the criteria inexplicable. Demand and use will continue, and no one has suggested to me that the
22 July 2008 : Column 178WH
postmasters feel that they are at the end of the road in terms of their ability to make a profit from the facilities. The process has simply not been properly thought through. I hope that we can use today’s debate to obtain some greater clarity from the Minister and send out a message to the Post Office that if it wishes the post offices to be used, it has to show that it values them as much as the communities do. I have absolutely no doubt that they value them a great deal.

Mrs. Gillan: We can make so many points about the closures, but one post office operator in my constituency made the particular point that the closure of the Amersham old town post office would leave three people unemployed and the postmaster with an unexpired lease of about £5,000 a year. The loss of employment in those small areas, where the post offices provide jobs for people, is an enormous problem. Where will they go?

Mr. Grieve: I entirely agree. When I consulted the Bourne End post office, it was explained to me that there are four part-time staff. I have visited that post office, and I suspect that those people would have great difficulty finding other employment. Many are not young, and, in many ways, they work at the post office because it is part of the community. The pleasure that they get from working at the post office correlates to the number of people who go in and out of it. So I agree entirely.

I want to bring my remarks to a close by saying to the Minister—at the risk of repeating myself—that I accept that sometimes difficult decisions must be taken but I worry about this process. There is no confidence in the consultation that is taking place and there is a perception that these decisions about closures are a foregone conclusion. The evidence of my own eyes suggests to me that some of these post offices due for closure are viable, have a good future and could continue providing a really good service to the local community and making a profit for the Post Office itself.

10.10 am

Mr. Mark Lancaster (North-East Milton Keynes) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs. Gillan) on securing this very timely and valuable debate.

I should like to pick up on a couple of points that my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) made during his very passionate speech. The first point was about the postmasters of local branches being told that they should not communicate with the press. In fact, it is even worse than that, because two of my local postmasters have told me that it has been made very clear to them that if they should campaign or contact the local press in any way their compensation package from the Post Office would be changed, which I think is an absolute outrage. I would like the Minister to respond to that point when he winds up the debate.

The second point that my hon. and learned Friend made was that he felt that this list of post offices had been “magicked up”. I would go one step further and say that the complete list is a sham and that there has been no great analysis involved in its production. I say that because last November, some eight months before the publication of our area consultation, the Post Office inadvertently published the list of the post offices in my
22 July 2008 : Column 179WH
constituency that were due to be closed. They did that because during the previous consultation for Northamptonshire and counties further to the north, the Post Office published a map and simply chose to “grey out” the north Buckinghamshire-Milton Keynes area, but failed to obliterate the small red crosses on the post offices that had already been identified as long ago as last November as the branches that it wanted to close. Therefore, the idea that due process has been followed in trying to identify which post offices in my constituency need to be closed, given that eight months ago that map was published, is an equal outrage.

I am pleased to say that I cannot compete with my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Beaconsfield for the number of post offices in our constituencies that are due to close. Only four are due to be closed in my constituency, although six are due to be closed in Milton Keynes. When people think of Milton Keynes, they probably think of an urban area, although my constituency is two-thirds rural and one-third urban. Of the four post offices in my constituency due to be closed, two are in the rural area and two in the urban area.

However, the overwhelming feeling in Milton Keynes is a complete lack of belief in the Government, because at a time when they are forcing our city to expand they seem to be forcing our post office network to contract. People in Milton Keynes simply do not understand that.

I intend to be brief, but I shall begin by discussing the two post offices in my rural area. The first is in Little Brickhill, in the south of my constituency, just a few miles north of Buckingham. I went to a protest meeting about three or four weeks ago and literally the whole village turned out in the village hall. There is absolute outrage at the prospect that the last facility in the village—the last village shop—is going to be closed. Yes, the post office has a relatively small number of attendees each week, but it provides the complete economic and social heart of Little Brickhill. The nearest post office that people in the village will be able to go to is in Bletchley, about two miles away. However, the Bletchley main post office will also have to accommodate the closures of branches in the constituency of the hon. Member for Milton Keynes, South-West (Dr. Starkey), who has chosen not to attend this debate today. So it will have to accommodate the customers of four post offices and there is great concern about whether it will be able to do so.

The other rural post office in my constituency that is due for closure is Weston Underwood, which is in the north of my constituency. I intend to attend a protest meeting that will be held in Weston Underwood this Wednesday and it is a shame that nobody from the Post Office will be able to attend it, because if they were able to do so they would understand the strength of feeling there. The Weston Underwood branch is the last of a group of rural post offices in that area that remains open and it also provides the financial heart of that small community. The nearest post office that people in Weston Underwood will be able to attend is in Olney, the town that I live in, but that is about two miles away and there is a very infrequent bus service between the two.

22 July 2008 : Column 180WH

It is absolutely right that when we talk about the nearest post offices to those being closed, we also bear in mind that it is not simply the distance between the two post offices that people have to travel. Invariably, people have had to travel some distance in the first place to get to the post office that is due to close. So we are not talking about a one-mile journey; we are perhaps talking about a four-mile journey becoming a five or six-mile journey. All too often, rural buses only run to these centres of population, so it is not actually that straightforward simply to add an extra mile to the journey.

From a pure numbers point of view, the two most significant branch closures in my constituency are in the heart of Milton Keynes. The first branch is in the grid square of Conniburrow, just to the north of the city centre. It currently accommodates about 1,500 people per week who carry out transactions and it serves a population of about 20,000 people. About 15 per cent. of people attending that branch are elderly and it provides an incredibly valuable service. I went to a protest meeting in the area last Friday and the turnout was very impressive.

The problem in Conniburrow is that there is no bus service to the alternative post office that has been proposed, Crown Walk in central Milton Keynes. The Crown Walk office is only 0.9 miles away. However, owing to the nature of Milton Keynes, which includes a very impressive grid road system but also lots of overpasses and underpasses, it is impossible to get to the Crown Walk office by road, because there is no bus service, and if people were to walk, although the distance may be 0.9 miles as the crow flies, it is considerably further by the time they have gone up and down 46 steps, left and right, and through the underpasses. There is great concern that the Crown Walk post office is simply inaccessible to those currently using the Conniburrow branch.

The final post office in my constituency that is set to close is in Fishermead, which is one of the most deprived estates in south-east England. It is a tremendous estate, but the post office really is the heart of that community. I attended a meeting in the area last Friday and there are many vulnerable residents there who also feel very strongly that access to Crown Walk will be almost impossible, because of the nature of the road layout of Milton Keynes. There is a bus service to Crown Walk, but it is infrequent.

One of the principal concerns that people in Milton Keynes have is that the alternative post office that is being proposed, the main office at Crown Walk, is already used by some 8,000 people each week. Effectively, that number will have to increase to some 13,000 people a week. Last Friday, I went to see the Crown Walk branch for myself and the queue of people was already stretching out of the door. People were talking about experiencing waits of between 30 and 40 minutes at the moment, so I simply do not understand how that branch will cope when the customers from two major post offices in neighbouring grid squares are also trying to use it.

For the reasons that I pointed out at the start of my speech, it is absolutely right to say that this whole consultation has been a sham, not least because of the advance publication of information on the post offices
22 July 2008 : Column 181WH
in my constituency that were going to close. The Minister really needs to stop and think again about the way that the Government have been proceeding with this consultation.

10.17 am

Lorely Burt (Solihull) (LD): I congratulate the hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs. Gillan) on securing this debate. There are hon. Members all over the country who are desperate to secure a similar type of debate, so she has done extremely well to secure this one.

I have huge sympathy for everyone in the whole of Buckinghamshire who is affected by post office closures. It is a process of consultation which I might choose to put in inverted commas if I were writing the Hansard report of this debate. It is happening all over the country. Indeed, at present three post offices in my constituency are due to be closed.

A total of 5,500 post offices have closed since this Government came to power, which amounts to 29 per cent. of the entire network. However, it must be said that at least this Government have subsidised the network to date to the tune of £2 billion and they intend to provide more subsidy. By contrast, under the previous Conservative Government more than 3,000 branches were closed and my understanding is that there was no subsidy for them.

Mrs. Gillan: I believe that for a large part of the time under the Conservative Government the Post Office actually made a profit, and I speak advisedly and declare an interest, because my husband was a civil servant in the Department of Trade and Industry who was responsible for the Post Office at the time.

Lorely Burt: I am grateful to the hon. Lady for that intervention.

The hon. Lady spoke eloquently about vulnerable people and their reliance on the post office. I wonder whether it might be helpful to quote some statistics sent to me by my local Shirley citizens advice bureau. One thousand visitors to its website were surveyed. They commented that a six-week consultation was too short for the most vulnerable people to be included. The survey revealed that more than 90 per cent. would be personally affected if their post office closed, and that three quarters of those respondents would be significantly affected.

Three quarters of the respondents could get to their local post office on foot. However, if their nearest post office were to close, only 14 per cent. would be able to do so. Also, if vulnerable people—those on benefits, for example—had to take public transport, they would have to find an additional amount of money somewhere. More than 60 per cent. of the over-75s use the post office to pay their bills. The survey illustrates what the hon. Lady and the hon. and learned Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) and the hon. Member for North-East Milton Keynes (Mr. Lancaster) said about the closures being a country-wide problem.

Next Section Index Home Page