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Chelmsford Crown Post Office

Volume 461: debated on Tuesday 19 June 2007

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Roy.]

I am delighted to have the opportunity to raise an issue of considerable concern to many of my constituents, especially those living in the town of Chelmsford: the Post Office’s proposal to move Chelmsford Crown post office from its current site in Exchange way to WH Smith in the High street.

Eight sub-post offices have been closed, a number of which were in the most deprived parts of my constituency. The Crown post office became the nearest post office for some local residents, even though many of them—young mothers and pensioners—were not affluent enough to afford vehicular access to it. The post office has been in Exchange way for many years; it is popular and extremely well used. What is important for wheelchair users and people with limited mobility is that it is within 50 yd of car parking for disabled people in Market road, so their access is easier.

My constituents want to know why the Post Office believes it necessary to move the Crown post office from that site, which is acceptable to local customers and the town, to the High street. We are grateful that it is to remain in the centre of the town with all the other shops, where people naturally go to do their shopping, but there are some drawbacks, the first of which is access. Motorists cannot use the roads that pass WH Smith. The front, in the High street, is pedestrianised, so it is blocked for vehicle access, and the road at the rear, where there is an entrance to the building, can be used only by buses. Even if cars could use it for access, a series of bus stops along the road would make such arrangements unfeasible or impossible.

The nearest disabled car parking spaces are about 300 yd away, and I draw the Minister’s attention to the Department of Transport’s guidelines on the location of parking bays for disabled people:

“As pedestrians, many disabled people will have a limited mobility range, and will require specially designated parking bays closer to the places they wish to visit. Whether on-street or off-street, parking bays for disabled people should not be further from major destinations (e.g. bank, post office, large store, supermarket.”

The guidelines categorise various conditions of disability and the maximum distance from car parking to building. For the visually impaired, the distance should be 150 m; for wheelchair users, 150 m; for ambulatory people without a walking aid, 100 m; and for stick users, 50 m. The disabled parking bays nearest to the WH Smith site are 300 yd away, which will create significant problems for people who need to use wheelchairs or who have limited mobility. The road layout and the siting of the building mean that the problems are insoluble.

There is another access difficulty for my constituents. If they want to enter the proposed post office at WH Smith from the pedestrianised area, that is fine because the entrance is at ground level. But if they use the rear entrance—which is adjacent to most of the bus stops, so a lot of people may use it—there are steps immediately inside the building going down to the retail area. That will cause problems.

My constituents and I find it even more staggering that the post office will be sited not on the ground floor but on the first floor of the building. The Post Office says it will ensure that WH Smith meets the requirements of the Disability Discrimination Act, and I have no doubt that it will, but there will be problems if the level of usage is similar to that of the current Crown post office. WH Smith has only one lift for disabled people, which takes a maximum of eight people. If wheelchair users use the lift, eight people will not be able to get in the lift at once. Given the level of usage, particularly at peak times such as on a Saturday, queues will form within the retail area where WH Smith is selling its own products, as people wait for the lift to the first floor.

One might also say, correctly, that there is an escalator up to the first floor at the front of the building, but there is no escalator down, so people would have to use the stairs. I have no knowledge of any proposal or commitment by the Post Office or WH Smith to put in a down escalator, and there is an argument that they will not be prepared to do that because if they do, the only way up or down would be by lift or escalator and there would be no stairs, because the building is not big enough to house a proper staircase and a down escalator, and some people do not like using escalators, or would feel that their choices were infringed upon by having to use the escalator option. If the escalators were to break down, of course, the sole option would be the conventional stair system, even though it would be on an escalator that was not moving.

My hon. Friend knows that many of my constituents will use this post office, and he may also know that the post office in Brentwood faces an identical fate, with the counter being located upstairs. My concern, and I should be grateful for my hon. Friend’s views on it, is that people with a disability, who may have difficulty walking or be in a wheelchair, or perhaps parents with prams, will bustle about downstairs waiting to use the lift. If the building has to be evacuated, such people might find themselves trapped.

I am extremely grateful to my hon. Friend because he makes an extremely important point, which to my mind strengthens the case against placing the main Crown post office services on the first floor. There is indeed the potential for safety problems if there were to be a fire or any other form of accident in the building, particularly if, as my hon. Friend says, one is dealing with people who are elderly and frail, or have a disability, or are of limited mobility. My constituents are extremely anxious and unhappy about this element of the proposal.

The Post Office has said that it might well provide a few services downstairs. We are in a consultation process, which I will come to in a minute, and it is easy to make promises such as that, but I do not think it adds up to very much. My constituents want to go into the post office, as they do now, on the ground floor, with ease of access, and they want to be able to enjoy the range of services. The tasks for which people use services range from buying stamps to dealing with car tax and benefit collection. I am not convinced that a viable limited service could be provided on the ground floor. Yet again, that would eat into the commercial viability of WH Smith, which will use the ground floor to carry on its commercial activities.

I also want to make a point about the consultation process. We are fairly cynical in Chelmsford, because there was a consultation process about the closure of the eight sub-post offices. I had some input into the consultation, as did many of my constituents, local councillors and others in the local community. The results of the consultation may have been received, but, in all eight cases, no indication was given that attention was paid to them or that they were listened to. When the consultation time ended, the precise proposals that were announced originally were pressed ahead with and implemented. We came to the conclusion that there was little point in having a consultation process, because we felt that no one was listening to the ideas, proposals and counter arguments that we put. Of course, one has to admire the Post Office: cleverly, there were no problems with the postmasters and postmistresses, because they got extremely generous financial remuneration for ending the siting of sub-post offices on their premises.

In this case, the consultation process is even trickier, because it is not about the decision to move from one building to another. That is a done deal. The Post Office has said, “This is what we’re going to do,” and I cannot have any input into a consultation process to argue why that is not in the best interests of the local community, or even possibly the Post Office—and neither can my hon. Friend the Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Mr. Pickles) or my constituents. That is not on the table.

The consultation process is on a much narrower issue: the services that will be provided inside the post office. Post offices are post offices; they provide a wide range of services and I would be amazed if the Crown post office, if it moves to WH Smith, started to cut the essential business that it provides to my constituents. If anything, I think it would like to increase the range of services that it provides, and I am all in favour of that. If the Minister believes that that is what should happen, I am 100 per cent. with him. We need to give more business to Crown post offices and sub-post offices to help them to thrive and develop in a highly competitive world.

What is the point in a consultation process in that respect, given that we all agree that it is in the interests of the post office to provide more services? I am not convinced about the consultation process, because I fear that the move is a done deal—unless at this late stage the Post Office can be persuaded that the building that houses WH Smith in Chelmsford is not suitable, because of the problems with access and the Department for Transport guidelines on the maximum distance between where cars can be parked and the building.

I had a meeting with Post Office representatives this morning, which I found useful because I had an opportunity to explain my points to them. Not unnaturally they are not intimately familiar with Chelmsford High street and its WH Smith, but they were prepared to listen and they took on board my points about vehicular access and the layout of the building. However, the Post Office has to realise that, although it is a business—I do not object to that or have a philosophical problem with it—it is also a service to the community. It has a loyal customer base that uses the Crown post office and has used it even more since the closure of one particular sub-post office. The Post Office has an obligation to its customers and an obligation to think about the social service that it provides, as well as the commercial service.

I urge the Post Office to think again, even at this late stage, because it has come up with a building that is not as suitable as it may have thought. I think that this has probably got wrapped up in the fact that the Post Office is implementing a package with several branches of WH Smith throughout the country. Of course, not all the branches have the same layouts and are in the same sorts of building. Some of the branches might work very well and be extremely suitable, but I bet that they will not be on the first floor, with difficult to access for those with disabilities.

I understand that the Minister cannot wave a wand and tell the Post Office not to behave in such a way. I do not expect him to announce that he will do that today, much as I would love him to do so. However, given his Department’s connections and dealings with the Post Office, I hope that he will be able to persuade it to reflect on the concern, anger and disappointment of my constituents. I also hope that he will ask it to think again and perhaps find a more suitable building in the centre of Chelmsford that does not have the same problems as the building it has selected.

I congratulate the hon. Member for West Chelmsford (Mr. Burns) on securing the debate. He spelled out clearly the importance of postal services to his constituents and emphasised his concerns about the future of the Crown post office in Chelmsford high street following the announcement made by Post Office Ltd on 19 April of its decision to move the branch to a nearby WH Smith store. I know that he has been lobbying hard and making strong representations on behalf of his constituents. I will try to answer the questions that he asked about Crown post offices, although I must emphasise that the Government do not have a role in detailed operational decisions such as that on the Chelmsford office, which he accepts. Nevertheless, I emphasise that the Government share the concerns of hon. Members about securing a sustainable future for the business.

The hon. Gentleman appreciates that there is a pressing need to tackle the significant losses that the network of Crown post offices is incurring. There are about 450 Crown post offices and it is estimated that they lost about £70 million last year alone. Clearly, that position is not sustainable, and the Government fully support the Post Office’s policy for reducing the losses, which includes maintaining a core network of Crown post offices while continuing to drive forward efficiencies and the franchising of branches when suitable opportunities arise. We welcome the commercial deal between Post Office Ltd and WH Smith because it will secure the retention of a main post office service in each of the 70 areas affected. Without that deal, there would have been a huge question mark hanging over the future of many Crown post offices and a question whether there might be outright closures.

Concern has been expressed about the service provided in franchised Crown branches. The evidence from the pilots with WH Smith shows that it is wrong to say to customers that franchising a post office will automatically lead to a reduction in the quality of service. Staff at franchised post offices are trained by Post Office Ltd in exactly the same way as directly managed staff. Franchisees are bound by stringent contractual requirements to ensure that service standards remain at the same high level following the transfer from the direct management of Post Office Ltd. It is important to say that franchising is not closure. Franchises and conversions do not reduce the number of post offices.

I can appreciate that customers will initially be unsure about the service implications of moving the branch from its existing location, as the hon. Gentleman outlined. Change can be unsettling—for some more so than others—but I understand that there is positive evidence from mystery shopper visits to, and focus group feedback on, the six pilot transfers to WH Smith stores that took place last year. The majority of customers welcome the pleasant environment and excellent customer service. More generally, many customers welcome the fact that there is a complementary retail offering on the same premises, as well as extended opening hours, which usually go hand in hand with the transfer to a franchise partner. Indeed, I understand that the new Chelmsford branch will offer extended opening hours of 9 am to 5.30 pm from Monday to Saturday.

Critically, the decision emphasises to customers that post office services will continue to be provided in Chelmsford town centre. Almost 14,000 post offices are already run by private businesses—individuals or franchise chains—including some 900 or so of the 1,400 large main post offices in town centres. The network has always relied on private business for the majority of its outlets.

The hon. Gentleman spelled out in detail his concerns about the consultation arrangements. It is important to stress that the local public are being consulted by Post Office Ltd. As agreed between the Post Office and Postwatch, the consumer champion, in the code of practice on post office closures and relocations, there is consultation on the service implications for each franchised office. However, it has always made clear that the decision to transfer the management of a Crown branch to a franchise partner is an operational decision for the Post Office to take.

The proposal to convert the WH Smith branch in Chelmsford went to public consultation on 30 May 2007 and runs to 11 July 2007. I would expect the important matters that the hon. Gentleman raised this evening, such as the disabled parking bays, to be addressed during the consultation. I hope that his meeting today with Post Office Ltd gives him some reassurance that it will take those matters on board. This evening’s Adjournment debate will help in that process. The current planned month of the transfer is October 2007.

Post Office Ltd has taken decisions on which branches will convert to WH Smith management based on a range of factors, including the proximity to WH Smith stores that are seen as suitable to accommodate a post office franchise, existing overheads such as the lease on properties, and what the company and WH Smith consider to be the future potential of branches. They are not a reflection on the current branch performance or on the people working in the branches.

In some stores, as in Chelmsford, the first floor provides the most suitable space to accommodate the post office facility. I understand that the existing branch has a total of 10 fortress-style counters, and the new location will also provide 10 positions, with eight of those being open-plan. As regards disability access, Post Office Ltd has given an assurance that all branches will be fully accessible to all customers, with special arrangements in place to assist customers with special access needs, for example in branches like Chelmsford, where the post office counter is not on the ground floor.

As one would expect from an established prominent high street retailer, WH Smith is also fully aware of its responsibilities under the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 and will ensure that the branch remains fully accessible for all customers, including those with mobility problems. Although I understand that the store, as the hon. Gentleman described, does not have an escalator from the first floor down to ground level, a customer lift is available in-store for customers unable to negotiate the stairs. I understand that the lift holds a maximum of 13 people at any one time and is capable of accommodating pushchairs and wheelchairs. The Post Office and WH Smith are therefore confident that this will adequately accommodate the needs of customers.

Many customers will see the products that WH Smith and the Post Office sell as complementing each other. The deal with WH Smith guarantees that that branch will be operated for a minimum period of seven years. In the extremely unlikely event that WH Smith does not want to extend the initial contract or is unable to fulfil it, the Post Office would obviously take steps to ensure that services are retained in that key location. It must be remembered that typically some 10 per cent. of the offices in the network change hands every year, so the Post Office is very experienced in managing that successfully. The deal between Post Office Ltd and WH Smith is a purely operational and commercial issue for the parties, and does not impact on the Government’s recent consultation on the network.

There are a number of challenges facing the post office network, including the need to tackle the losses of the Crown network. Although many of us and our constituents say we like our post office and value it highly, the reality is that, collectively, we do not use it as we once did. It is an undeniable fact that many people now prefer to pay their bills by direct debit or use one of the Post Office’s competitors, do their banking via the internet or use a cash point machine, renew their motor vehicle licences online, and keep in touch using emails or text messages.

Some 4 million fewer customers are using post offices each week compared with just two years ago. Although many Crown offices might still be very busy and well used, they are trading low margin products in high cost locations. In the financial year 2005-06 the post office network lost £2 million a week, as we have discussed in the Chamber on a number of occasions in the past six months at least. When the figures for the performance in the financial year 2006-07 are released, it is expected that the losses will be closer to £4 million per week.

For too long the Post Office was deprived of much needed investment. The Government have reversed that approach and invested substantial sums in supporting the network—some £2 billion since 1999. We have supported Post Office Ltd in its efforts to develop its range of financial service products, with Government’s investment having included £500 million for the Horizon project to bring computer systems into every post office throughout the UK.

The Post Office recognises the need to increase its range of services, adapt to changing shopping habits and give sub-postmasters products to sell that appeal to the needs of today’s and tomorrow’s customers. Post Office Ltd is the largest provider of foreign currency in the UK and the third largest provider of travel insurance. The Post Office is also the UK’s fifth largest fixed-line telephone service provider, and one in every 25 credit cards issued last year was from the Post Office. So new products have been introduced and more are in the pipeline.

Through the statement made by the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry last month and the £1.7 billion committed to Post Office Ltd until 2011, the Government have set out a framework to create stability for the network so that the Post Office can move forward with confidence and rise to the challenges of the 21st century.

I do not underestimate the difficulties that the hon. Gentleman has outlined on behalf of his constituents. I am convinced that Post Office Ltd will take those points on board and respond to him positively. The urban reinvention programme of several years ago did not start out as the best consultative exercise that the country has ever seen. The Post Office recognises that, as does Postwatch, and I have said on behalf of the Government that that was the case. However, the position when it finished was a lot stronger than it had been before, Postwatch is very well placed to ensure that it represents the consumer much more effectively and Post Office Ltd is becoming much more sensitive and can be expected to respond positively by Members of Parliament on behalf of their constituents. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that I will make sure that the comments that he has made tonight will be communicated to Post Office Ltd as part of the consultative exercise.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at nineteen minutes to Eleven o’clock.