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Post Office Closures

Volume 478: debated on Wednesday 9 July 2008

It is a great pleasure to have secured this debate on the impact of the post office closure scheme on my constituency of Torridge and West Devon. The debate has excited a considerable amount of attention in my constituency—indeed, a number of postmasters and postmistresses have travelled up to listen to what the Minister has to say. Mr. and Mrs. Jeanette Hendrie are the postmaster and postmistress of St. Giles in the Heath; Mrs. Shirley Hoskin is the postmistress of Meeth; and Mrs. Naomi Nardi is the postmistress of Bridestowe village. They are all here because of their acute concern about not only the fact that their branches have been identified in the Post Office’s closure proposals, but the way in which the consultation has been handled. I shall devote my opening remarks to those issues.

My constituency is among the worst affected in the country by the closure proposals. Post Office Ltd has proposed closing 45 branches in Devon and replacing 38 with an outreach service. Torridge and West Devon will bear a disproportionate number of those post office closures—five branches are to close outright and a further 15 are to be replaced with outreach services. Therefore, 20 post offices are to close in total, which represents a disproportionate number of the already disproportionate number of closures that Devon will have to bear. In fact, 35 per cent. of post offices in my constituency are to be closed. Only one other constituency in the country—Hexham, I think—will have to sustain a larger closure rate.

Despite the target that Post Office Ltd has set of only affecting on average 18 per cent. of services in any area, Devon as a whole will lose 22.8 per cent of services, as 83 branches are to close. I submit to the Minister that a number of bodies, including the county council and Postwatch, are concerned about the growing evidence that Devon has had to sustain a far harder blow from the axe—a far keener burden of the closures—than any other closure area to date. I would be grateful if the Minister and his Department examined that concern in the light of the fundamental importance of fairness. If closures in other parts of the country have not met the Post Office’s targets, it is quite wrong for post offices that feature down the list, particularly in the vulnerable rural areas that I represent, to have to sustain an unequal burden of the closure programme.

From the start of this process, I have argued that local people need to show Post Office Ltd why they so desperately need their branches. The first point that the Post Office has made in answering questions from Members of Parliament is that there has been no or very little response to the consultation. I am glad to say to the Minister that that has not been the case in Devon, and it has certainly not been the case in Torridge and West Devon. Thousands of people have made relevant, well informed and well argued submissions to the Post Office about why their sub-post office branch should not close. A flood of letters, e-mails and phone calls from across the constituency and county has inundated my office and the network change team. Astonishing numbers of people have flocked to public meetings in the affected villages. Postmasters who I know and those who are here today have said to me that they have been deeply touched by the depth of support and affection expressed for the service that they provide across the community.

As I have already said, the consultation and closure scheme has been conducted in a way that has attracted expressions of grave concern about its competence and fairness, not only from Members of Parliament but from the country council and Postwatch. Let me give the Minister some examples of why the communities I represent fail to have the confidence that the consultation ought to inspire. In St. Giles on the Heath, where Mr. and Mrs. Hendrie operate the shop and post office, the proposal made by the network change team indicated that it was not the last shop in the village. In a remote, isolated, rural community, such as parts of the constituency I represent, whether the post office is the last shop in the village is clearly an important consideration. Of course, it is not a decisive factor and it is certainly not a conclusive factor, but, as the network change team has indicated to me, it is something that must be properly taken into account. There could be an argument about whether it should be a decisive factor and the argument could also be made—it is one I would adopt—that the Government should have said that if the post office is the last shop in the village, that ought to be a disproportionately influential factor when considering whether to save it. I will come to that point in a moment or two.

The Post Office identified that there was another shop in St. Giles. In its proposal, which was circulated around the parish—most of the post offices and shops have a number of parishes dependent on them—it said there was a farm shop in St. Giles. That caused a considerable amount of consternation among residents in the village because they had not been aware of a farm shop. If it existed, it was not well advertised and none of the local inhabitants of the village or the parish knew of it. The truth is that a local will say that, when driving up the road between Launceston and Holsworthy, one can see there is something called Box Shop farm. Of course, what had happened was the Post Office team had driven past, seen Box Shop farm, swapped the words farm and shop, and thought it was a farm shop.

That might seem to be an amusing anomaly, but the Post Office is asking hundreds of people to accept the loss of what they regard as their staff of life—the lifeline and heart of their community and a facility on which the elderly, the infirm and the disabled depend—on the basis of a drive past that is superficial in its assessment of the impact on that community. The Post Office team considered that a sign meant they did not have to worry about the post office being the last shop in the village—and they did not even bother to go in.

I am sure that the Minister will agree that that is an astonishingly superficial approach and one bound to inspire the deepest distrust and cynicism from the communities that have to suffer as a result of such incompetence. There is no other shop in the village of St. Giles but the “Pint and Post”, which Mr. and Mrs. Hendrie operate, so by losing the post office, it is almost inevitable that the village will lose the shop.

Sitting suspended for Divisions in the House.

On resuming—

I shall do my best to resume in mid-flight, as it were. I was talking about the superficiality with which the consultation and, worse, the assessment of the impact that closure would have on communities seem to have been carried out by the Post Office in Torridge and West Devon and in Devon as a whole. It is worth observing that Postwatch has told me—indeed, it said as much in its written representations to the Post Office, which, I suppose, eventually escalated to the Secretary of State—that the scheme in Devon appears to be one of the worst. I said worst, but Postwatch would say that the scheme was not as well put together as those in most if not all other areas of the country.

The experience of the people in St. Giles is one example, but let me deal with the experience of the people of Meeth. The other day I had the great pleasure of visiting Meeth; I go through it frequently because the main road between the north and south of my constituency, the A386, passes through it. It is a fast road: cars are frequently seen passing through at 60 mph and sometimes even faster. Juggernauts and 40 ft lorries go past and through the village almost every hour, yet the Post Office has proposed that the post office, run by Mrs. Hoskin, should close and that the village should have a mobile post office instead, which will park in a lay-by about 600 yd out of the village, around two blind bends.

As the Minister will appreciate, the village has a large proportion of elderly and infirm residents. Indeed, my constituency has a disproportionate number of the elderly among its population. Based on the 2001 census, 28.3 per cent. of households in Torridge and West Devon are comprised only of pensioners, compared with a national average of 23.71 per cent. That is simply one indication of the deprivation, both geographical and otherwise, that communities in my constituency are suffering. Yet, the inhabitants of Meeth—the elderly, the frail, the infirm, and even the young—are being asked to walk around two blind bends on a main road, 600 yd out of the village. There is no pavement or walkway, and not even a grass verge. It will be a death-trap.

When confronted with the astonishment at the proposal, the Post Office simply says, “We haven’t really worked it out yet.” That, too, does not inspire the confidence that the programme and consultation should inspire. Many of the decisions that have been taken in my constituency and, no doubt, in others in Devon, are extraordinary, even inexplicable. Eight shops that are the last in their village are scheduled to go, and many, including Bridestowe, which is run by Mrs. Nardi, are successful.

Mrs. Nardi’s post office business has increased for the past six years. Only a few months ago, the Post Office awarded the shop the ability to deal with foreign currency such as euros. It had to hit a minimum criterion of business to do that. One hundred and fifty self-employed people and businesses depend on it. If there is an example of a sustainable rural branch, it is Bridestowe. It is in the upper 46 per cent. in customer numbers compared with similar concerns around the country, which is an impressive achievement.

There has been an overwhelming response from people in widely dispersed communities and parishes around Bridestowe, all of whom depend on that post office. I met a gentleman of 101 years of age from a care village and residential home who came out to visit the branch to show his support. It is not to be supposed that these post offices and the people who depend on them will conceivably be able to rely on a mobile solution that might visit their village for but an hour or two, at an inconvenient time, on a wet and rainy day, or even a day of snow and cold, as villages around Dartmoor such as Bridestowe so frequently experience.

The councils, the postmasters and mistresses and I have made detailed, well argued—I hope—submissions to the Post Office. We hope, given that the decision is being taken now, that the Post Office will listen not only to the pleas, but to the arguments that have been put to it, which are based on facts, statistics and detail.

It would take too long for me to give the details of each of the threatened post offices in my constituency. Shebbear and Buckland Brewer, among others, are successful. Indeed, in cases such as St. Giles, villages have received public money for the post office. Some £27,000 of public money from Devon Renaissance was spent on regenerating the post office in Buckland Brewer, yet it is scheduled to close. Why was that money given? It was given because the authorities that looked at the need for rural regeneration in that area—I appeal to the Minister—decided that there was such rural deprivation that they ought to spend nearly £30,000 of taxpayers’ money to bring the shop back to life. Now the Post Office says, “We will kill it.”

That is an astonishing misuse of taxpayers’ money. Three years ago, £27,000 of taxpayers’ money could be spent, but now the Post Office is ignoring not only the fact of that expenditure, but the fact that it was spent because of objective evidence of rural deprivation. Bridestowe is the 20th most deprived parish in England. Something like a dozen parishes in my constituency are in the top 500 of 32,000 such parishes in the country. On geographical deprivation terms and criteria, it is clear that many of these vital post offices would not close.

What about Postbridge in Dartmoor national park? There is a statutory duty on the Government, under section 62 of the Environment Act 1995, to consider and foster communities on the high moors, in the national parks, yet the Post Office has come along, apparently without the Government knowing, and proposed to close Postbridge post office, which is miles from the next post office, and to replace it with a van. How are those things compatible? Will the Minister explain how they are compatible with Government policies to tackle rural deprivation and look after high moor and national park areas, where communities are exposed and isolated on hillsides? How is it conceivably compatible with Government policies to foster the rural economy and encourage diversification?

What are the 150 businesses that surround Bridestowe parish and Bridestowe post office, which are served so well by Mrs. Nardi, to do? What are the businesses such as Hookways coaches in Meeth, which pours parcels and post into the Meeth post office, to do? What are the businesses and people around St. Giles supposed to do? St. Giles was given public money only a few years ago for the same reason as Buckland Brewer, namely, its deprivation and rural isolation. It does not appear to the people I represent to be joined-up thinking or that the Government’s priorities are being taken into account by the post office closure proposals. That is why the consultation so fundamentally lacks the kind of authenticity and sincerity that would command the confidence of those whom I represent.

I should like the Minister to answer this question. Why does the Post Office deny to the communities that I represent the financial figures that would help them to fight their case against the closure of critical facilities in the community? Four criteria are applied to the closure of post offices; one is access, another is the financial benefit to the Post Office. Try how communities might, they cannot winkle out of the Post Office those desperately important financial figures, which would help them to answer their question: what is the Post Office saving by closing the branch in Ashwater, or Bridestowe, or Shebbear, or Buckland Brewer, or Chillaton?

I am going to do something that has not been done to date, but I have considered it carefully. I wrote the other day to the Post Office chief executive, Mr. Alan Cook, asking for the financial savings that the post office would make from the closure of each post office. Mr. Cook told me that he will give me the figures because Ms Vennels, who is the network director, told the Business and Enterprise Committee that they would be given, but he said that he would like me to keep them confidential. I do not intend to keep them confidential. I intend to adopt the privilege of a Member of Parliament in this Chamber to say what he thinks is right in the interests of his constituents. However, before revealing them, I have decided to ensure that each of the postmasters and mistresses whose branches are affected consent and agree to the course that I propose to take today.

I have been told by the Post Office that it does not want me to reveal the information, and I have been told—indeed threatened—that if I do, it might not reveal such information to Members in the future. However, given that only a handful of Members know of the availability of such information, and having spoken to the Chairman of the Select Committee, I do not think that that is a profound deterrent.

I say, therefore, to the communities that I represent, to you, Mr. Weir and to the Minister that closing the post office in Ashwater will save the Post Office £6,000 a year. What is the community in Ashwater to make of the fact that they are to lose the last shop in their village—a village 9 miles from the nearest other viable facility—for just £6,000 a year? Of course the Post Office does not want people to know the figures, because there will be an uprising of outrage that for £6,000 a year, communities will lose the social cement and glue that is the essence of the survival of their village. The closure in Bridestowe will save the Post Office £8,700, and yet hundreds of businesses and several thousand people in the area depend on the post office. It is wrong that those figures are being kept from public view.

Each of the persons whose figures I have mentioned have consented to—indeed want—me to say what the savings are. The truth is that the savings are paltry in comparison with the damage that they will cause to the communities that I represent. It is simply wrong that those figures are being kept from communities so that they cannot assess the true value to the Post Office of their loss. The closure in Chillaton will save £10,800; the closure in Meeth £11,300, and the one in St. Giles £10,500—paltry figures! And I am concentrating on areas where vital shops are being lost. There might well be a case for closing a fragile office with 20 customers a week, of which there are a number in my constituency, but why are we closing these vital lifelines to communities?

I would like the Minister to answer those questions and to say whether it is right for Torridge and West Devon to sustain so disproportionate a burden for so paltry a saving. What does he make of the consultation based upon so superficial an impact assessment? I have given him just a few examples. Why has there been no assessment of the impact on the rural economy of closing Bridestowe when it is the Government’s policy to encourage the rural economy? There has been no such assessment or depth of research, and no thorough examination of the impact on rural economies, communities and deprivation.

This has been a botched process driven by cost. The real and underlying driver of cost is being concealed from the communities, which is why with due deliberation and consideration I have decided to go public with some of those figures. The truth is that my communities and postmasters want them to be known.

I shall do my best in the little time available to me to answer the hon. and learned Gentleman’s questions. I congratulate him on securing this debate and on presenting his arguments so well on behalf of his constituents. He spoke eloquently and passionately about the challenges that face his constituency as a result of its deeply rural character.

The Minister for Employment Relations and Postal Affairs, who could not be here today, has no role in decisions to close or retain individual post offices, which is rightly—in our judgment—a matter for Post Office Ltd, following local consultation, involving Postwatch, local people, MPs and other representatives. The post office closures in Devon are part of a wider programme announced in May 2007 by the then Department for Trade and Industry. Under the network change programme, up to 2,500 post offices will close and 500 new outreach services will be established, taking the network to around 11,500 branches. There will be roughly similar numbers of closures in urban and rural areas.

Before addressing the issues raised by the hon. and learned Gentleman, it is important to set out the background to the network change programme. It involves substantial numbers of post office closures and has understandably given rise to much concern and protest. However, the network is facing significant challenges: it is losing about £500,000 a day; it has 4 million fewer customers a week than just three years ago; and three out of four post offices run at a loss to Post Office Ltd. If the Post Office was run as a commercial network, there would probably only be about 4,000 branches. Some very rural branches have so few customers that the cost per transaction is £17.

Faced with all that, the Government are not walking away, leaving the network to decline, with no plan for where or how branches would close, but have provided a subsidy of £150 million a year. That supports 7,500 non-commercial branches that would otherwise close and is part of an overall programme of public support for the Post Office of £1.7 billion up to 2011. I hope that the hon. and learned Gentleman agrees that that is a considerable sum. It is precisely because we recognise its important social and economic role that the Government are committed to a national network with reasonable access to post office services and are investing such financial support.

Governments also have a duty to the taxpayer, however, including the hon. and learned Gentleman’s constituents and mine, so the subsidy cannot be unlimited. Across the whole country, the subsidy is very considerable, including for rural areas. I appreciate his concern about the number of proposed closures in his constituency. However, out of 71 existing post offices in Torridge and West Devon, Post Office Ltd is proposing the outright closure of just six branches—about 9 per cent. of the total—two of which are mobile van services available in each village for just 30 minutes a week. Those villages are Buckland Monachorum and Peter Tavy—I apologise for the lack of a south-west accent.

Alongside those six branch closures, Post Office Ltd is proposing that a further 16 branches be replaced with outreach services, as part of the 500 new outreach services being introduced nationally to mitigate the effects of closures in rural areas and to provide a more cost-effective means of continuing to provide post office services in areas that would otherwise lose them. Under Post Office Ltd’s area plan proposals, 92 per cent. of customers in Devon will see no change to their nearest post office, and 99.4 per cent. of the county’s population will either see no change or will remain within one mile—as measured by road distance—of an alternative post office branch.

It is important to be clear about what the consultation process is about. It is not a vote or referendum on whether particular post offices should close, but about ensuring that Post Office Ltd has the best available knowledge on which to make informed decisions about which offices should close. It is about how that is to be done, not whether it is to be done. The decision to reduce the size of the network was taken in May 2007. I will ensure that the Post Office is made aware of the inaccuracy that the hon. and learned Gentleman has drawn to my attention today—I took that point about shops very seriously.

None of that means that there can be no change in the plans. For example, in Devon, nearly 17 per cent. of the initial closure proposals were changed as a result of detailed pre-consultation input from key stakeholders, including Postwatch, which is the consumer body, before they were put out to local consultation. Across the 26 area plans for which Post Office Ltd has announced its final decisions, 54 closure decisions have been withdrawn, with 32 alternative branches proposed for closure.

I note the hon. and learned Gentleman’s concern about the need to consider the potential impact on the Dartmoor national park, and I understand that the park authority has been consulted and has submitted its views on the Devon area plan proposals as part of the local public consultation.

The hon. and learned Gentleman mentioned the availability of financial information. It is difficult for Post Office Ltd to give specific detailed financial information for individual branches, without breaching commercial confidentiality or obtaining the sub-postmaster’s permission, but Post Office Ltd has confirmed that the average saving to the Post Office of a branch closing is around £18,000 per annum. In rural areas, the average saving is about £13,000.

The average saving in my constituency is less than £10,000, and in many of the cases in which the shops are closing, we are talking about £6,000 and £8,000. In each case, I have secured the assent of the postmaster to give the information. Can the Minister say why, when the postmaster has given consent, the Post Office should still want to maintain confidentiality?

The Post Office is running a business and has rivals of different types, but the hon. and learned Gentleman has chosen to make the information available.

This process is not easy, and I appreciate the concerns raised by the hon. and learned Gentleman, who has argued his case well. Our policy is designed to achieve a managed reduction in the network’s size and to ensure reasonable access to services across the country, with the aid of new outreach services. The only point that I will add is that the public can make a difference. One reason for the difficulties that face sub-post offices—whether in my constituency or the hon. and learned Gentleman’s—is that although many members of the public will sign petitions, they are not using sub-post offices in sufficient numbers. Where people want to maintain local services, they have a duty to use them.

The sitting having continued for two and a half hours after half-past Two o’clock, it was adjourned without Question put.

Adjourned at twenty-one minutes past Five o’clock.