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Torre Post Office

Volume 633: debated on Wednesday 20 December 2017

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the closure of Torre post office.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Gillan, and it is great to hear you pronounce “Torre” perfectly. I am particularly pleased to see the Minister, and also her PPS, my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond (Yorks) (Rishi Sunak), who I suspect are pleased to be in their places today. I had applied for this debate to be an Adjournment debate on the last day, so it is certainly welcome to have it here in Westminster Hall today.

I want to pay tribute to the Torre and Upton Community Partnership, particularly its chair, Margaret Forbes-Hamilton. They have campaigned hard on this issue, along with hundreds of residents, the many businesses based in Torre, and local elected representatives who have supported the campaign on a cross-party basis. I will cover a few key points. For example, where is Torre post office and why does its location matter? Why does it matter to local people? What are the benefits of its current location and what alternatives are there to the plan put forward by Post Office Ltd to close Torre post office? This is about closing Torre post office, not moving it to another location, and I will outline why.

This is an opportune day to secure a debate on Torre post office, given the announcements about the Post Office this morning. It is welcome to see the network back in profit for the first time in 16 years and a commitment to £370 million of new Government funding. Little did I realise when I applied for this debate the effect it would have. It is particularly pleasing to see the references to village post offices and to money being invested to bring in new services and technology. Torre is an urban village, so I hope that some of the funding will be able to assist in ensuring it can keep its post office.

The news today is a long way from the era of a decade ago, when the size of the network was cut, with the lowest point coming in the quarter ending on 30 September 2008, when there was a net reduction of 641 post offices in that one quarter, according to the Library. In 2008-09, nearly 12% of post offices disappeared: 12% of the whole network. Thankfully, since 2009, the network has been stable, and I really hope that today’s announcement will confirm that that will be the case for the people of Torre.

Some watching this debate will wonder where exactly Torre post office is and why it is so important for local people. There has been a post office in Torre since before 1832, and today the area retains its village feel, despite Torquay having expanded around it and to the north of it since then. Torre still has its own railway station and Christmas lights display, but sadly no bank, as the last branch, Lloyds, closed recently. Interestingly, it told its customers it would be okay as they could bank at Torre post office just down the road, but now that is under threat as well. Removing this brick in the local infrastructure of Torre makes no sense, particularly now that there are two recently approved developments that could bring more trade to it. There is the long-awaited regeneration of the B&Q and Zion church site nearby where planning was approved by Torbay Council earlier this year, and recently the council approved planning permission for 75 new apartments at Torre Marine. Assuming both developments are completed, they will help to create a significant increase in local resident numbers and boost the status and energy of the area generally.

There are signs that the area is starting to regenerate. Although the consultation is based on the premise that the branch is moving, not closing, the site suggested in Lymington Road is outside the Torre village shopping centre, meaning it is a closure for the local community. The location where it is proposed to move to is where a previous sub-post office closed a decade ago, partly through a lack of footfall, which was the reason cited for its closing.

So why does it matter to local people? More than 600 residents have written letters objecting to the Post Office’s plan. I must compliment the excellent one from Dr Patrick Low, which sets out perfectly the reasons for keeping the post office where it is and protecting the service in Torre. As he outlines, some traders and businesses will lose considerable time and income if the post office moves to Lymington Road, owing to the distance for posting and collecting parcels, and people will not use their local shops where the post office is not part of the district’s centre.

Most of the businesses based in Torre are small and independently owned. The time deficit would amount to a significant number of productive working hours, in some cases requiring smaller shops to close while staff are out. That might also cause queues at the site in Lymington Road, which would be a sub-post-office as part of a shop, because Torre traders would probably need to prioritise similar times of day for posting, with additional loss of time and productivity. It is worth noting that in Torre the post office is now the sole provider of banking services, with its free ATM heavily used by businesses and other customers. Again, that links to the closure of the nearby bank, since the post office is now the key provider of counter banking services in the area and the only provider of a reliably free ATM as a place to take out money. My goal, and that of local residents and the council, is to regenerate Torre, and the retention of post office services is a key part of ensuring it remains a viable district centre. That is why it matters to local people.

What are the benefits of the current location? Parking is far superior in Torre than at the suggested new branch in Lymington Road. Parking at Torre is available directly outside the post office and in the nearby car park, where Torbay Council allows people to park for 20 minutes for nothing to allow them to use services such as the post office. The increase of internet businesses in the area makes that especially important for traders and customers posting and collecting parcels. Some of the strongest feedback in the consultation was from those who rely on the post office for making deliveries in connection with businesses that they run from nearby homes. It goes without saying that the ability to park easily and safely is very important for the disabled, the elderly, and mothers.

Torre has a car park and on-street parking as well as facilities nearby to easily access the post office. Lymington Road is a busy road with limited parking. It certainly does not have a car park and at many times during the day it can be awkward to park. Accessibility is better at Torre post office than at the proposed location, not only because of how people get in and out of the shop, but because it is in walking distance for many more customers and businesses than the site at Lymington Road. There is also a bus stop just across the road, which is served by one of the most frequent buses in the bay, the No. 12, and wheelchair access is available via a ramp. In terms of accessibility, the current location is far preferable to the new location suggested by Post Office Ltd.

A slightly smaller concern, but still a big one, is that the location suggested on Lymington Road is a busy cut-through route for the area and it is not a place where anyone feels particularly safe getting out of a vehicle, especially with young children, whereas the area outside Torre post office is a semi-pedestrian zone with very light traffic. That re-emphasises why the current location is the right place for a community post office. We also have to look at alternatives to the plan put forward by Post Office Ltd. I am conscious that we cannot simply come to a debate bemoaning someone else’s plan; we have to come along with our own plan. Too often I sit in this Chamber hearing people bemoan proposals and have a go at things, and when challenged on their own proposals, they seem somewhat lacking in ideas about exactly how they would solve the problem they are complaining about.

When I first met the Post Office, it indicated that the reason for looking at the closure in Torre was the lack of alternative options: something I was very sceptical of. If Torre post office was in an isolated location, with no other businesses nearby, I could perhaps have seen the argument, but it is part of a reasonably vibrant local shopping centre, with many local businesses that depend on footfall, and presumably welcome the footfall from a post office coming in and out of their businesses. It was therefore really hard to believe that no one on that street would be prepared to pick up the service and provide it in the interests of the local community.

A number of alternatives were suggested. Again, I praise the work of the local community partnership in actively contacting local businesses to see if they would help put the matter to bed by expressing an interest in providing a post office if Post Office decides not to consider continuing with the stand-alone facility, which would be my personal preference. If it is determined not to do so, the question is whether another business is prepared to pick it up.

I was therefore very pleased to receive an email today from Stuart Taylor of Post Office, outlining a meeting that Post Office’s network operations manager had yesterday with Barney Carter and his family. The name Carter may not mean much to people in the Chamber, but in Torbay, Carters is a well-known local chain of convenience stores. Helpfully, it has a branch a few doors down from the current post office location. That store is regularly used—it is actually where I regularly buy my newspaper, because my office is based in Torre.

Although my preference would still be a dedicated Post Office branch, if the proposal outlined in that email can be taken forward it would at least fulfil the vital criterion for local people of keeping a service in Torre’s shopping centre. I urge Post Office to enter any talks with Carters in a positive spirit, looking to get a result, rather than conducting the talks in a way that might be used to justify its original proposal. For me, this morning’s news is very welcome, and I hope it will go from being a suggestion to a reality.

This morning, the Secretary of State for Business said that Post Office is

“at the heart of communities across the UK, with millions of customers and small businesses relying on their local branch every day to access a wide range of important services”.

I hope that the Minister will agree that Torre post office is a perfect example of how a post office can be more than just a place to buy a stamp or post a parcel. It is a service that sits at the heart of the Torre district centre, providing a range of financial services and access to facilities and opportunities that would not exist if the post office disappeared.

The point I made to Post Office when I met its representatives is that its brand is so strong that the phrase in the English language for what it provides is “a post office”. The very words that define what they do are their brand. I therefore hope that the Minister will relay the view of the whole community in Torre that 2018 should not mark the Last Post for Torre post office.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Gillan. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Torbay (Kevin Foster) on securing this debate on the closure of Torre post office, and on his comprehensive and well-argued contribution to the proceedings. He clearly set out the importance of Post Office services for the Torre community dating back to 1832, and the concerns that he, the community, business representatives, and local residents across the board have raised in respect of the proposed new location on Lymington Road. I fully appreciate the concerns that he has outlined.

The Government recognise the important role that post offices play in communities across the country. Between 2010 and 2018, the Government will have provided nearly £2 billion to maintain, modernise and protect a network of more than 11,500 branches across the country. Today, the Government announced a further £370 million to be made available as an investment over the next three years for Post Office to continue its successful modernisation, and to meet the challenges of a changing market. Today, there are over 11,600 Post Office branches in the UK, and the number of branches in the network is at its most stable for decades. That is because Post Office is transforming and modernising its network, thanks to the Government investment.

More than 4,400 branches are now open on Sundays. Nearly 1 million additional opening hours per month have been added to the network. The modernisation has also meant that losses in the business, excluding any subsidy, have reduced from £120 million in 2012 to a profit of £13 million, announced today—the first profit in 16 years. That has allowed Government subsidy to be reduced by more than three quarters since its peak back in 2012. The Conservative party has committed in successive manifestos to securing the future of the Post Office network, which is now at its most stable, with customer satisfaction remaining consistently high.

I understand that my hon. Friend has benefited from 422 additional opening hours across his constituency, with 11 of the 18 branches in his constituency now open on a Sunday. Post Office is offering more for customers, doing so more efficiently for the taxpayer, and ensuring that its services remain on our high streets throughout the country. Make no mistake about the Government’s commitment to Post Office.

Turning to the situation in Torre, I fully appreciate that there can be uncertainty and disquiet in communities when a change to Post Office services is proposed, and that those communities, like the community in Torre, hold strong views and perfectly valid concerns regarding planned changes. My hon. Friend has spoken passionately about his concerns regarding the existing proposal to relocate to the McColl’s store on Lymington Road. I fully understand the many points that he has made, including about the local area having many elderly and vulnerable people who will find it difficult to travel to the new location, especially given the limited direct bus services and parking in that area.

Of course, Post Office needs to continue to take steps to ensure that its branches remain sustainable for the future, as it is doing for Torbay. It does not propose such changes if it does not consider them necessary, and I want to make a couple of points about why some change, at least, is necessary. The current post office in Torre is run on a temporary basis, following the resignation of the previous postmistress. It is costly to maintain, and there are concerns about its long-term viability given its limited supporting retail offer and the fact that its lease is up for renewal in 2019. The relocation proposal seeks to find a permanent and more sustainable way to provide Post Office services to the community, which I am sure my hon. Friend will agree must be the best outcome for all concerned.

I am finding the Minister’s comments very interesting. Does she agree that given that the lease is not up until 2019, even given interim arrangements that would give an opportunity for Post Office to engage properly with other providers to keep the service in Torre? As she said, we need to keep the services on the high street.

I will answer that question directly. I agree that the timing of the lease renewal affords a little more time to get the best possible outcome for my hon. Friend’s constituents, but I slightly take issue with the implication that Post Office has not been properly consulting to date. I know it has been working very hard to find the best possible solution, and is taking on board the concerns that he and his constituents have raised.

For example, my hon. Friend mentioned the latest positive development, which is some interest expressed by a shop called Carters. Post Office has visited Carters twice. The management at Carters initially did not want to take on a post office counter, but it is marvellous that they are now undergoing a change of heart, and Post Office will conduct meaningful discussions with them.

Given the challenges faced by the current branch, Post Office acted proactively by putting out advertisements looking for operators willing to take on the post office. Advertisements have been running intermittently since October 2016, but sadly there have been no applicants from the Torre community. Post Office tried its best to make people aware by visiting local businesses and engaging with the community but, as with many such situations, the implications of the proposed outcomes are often realised only belatedly by others in the business community. Post Office recognises many of the points that my hon. Friend made and is delighted at the increased level of interest from the community.

McColl’s Retail Group showed interest and successfully completed the application process, and that is why it was selected as the proposed retail partner for the Torre community. The selection was not for want of trying to find a retail partner that met the aspirations so well put by members of the Torre community and by my hon. Friend this morning.

To be clear, there was no contact with myself or the community partnership on trying to identify an alternative prior to the consultation. The first we knew was when I received the letter notifying me, as the MP, about the start of the consultation.

I am glad my hon. Friend has put that on the record. There may well be a case for Post Office to undertake more contact, certainly with colleagues, prior to issuing consultations, but considerable work was done behind the scenes and during the consultation. It has run a consultation process because it does want people’s views; that is why it organises meetings and attends public events—to engage with the community to help it shape its plans. It consults in line with its code of practice on changes to the network, and that code has been agreed with Citizens Advice. I am aware that Post Office representatives have met, albeit possibly belatedly in his view, with my hon. Friend to discuss the matter, as well as with business and community leaders.

The consultation period on the proposed change has now ended and Post Office is now carefully considering all feedback received, of which I know there was a considerable amount in relation to this proposal, before it finalises its plans. I very much agree with my hon. Friend that it is vital that Post Office engages with the local community when planning for the future, but the decisions must ultimately be commercial ones for the business to take, within the parameters laid down by Government, to ensure that we protect our network across the country. Post offices operate in a highly competitive retail environment and we need to allow the business to assess how best to respond to the challenges it faces and secure Post Office services for communities in the future.

I understand that interest has been expressed by community partnerships and other interested local businesses in taking on the post office, including the example of Carters that we have already discussed. I am delighted to announce that Post Office has decided to pause its process in order to explore that interest fully, without prejudice to anyone involved. I reassure my hon. Friend that, thanks to his efforts and those of his community, no final decision has yet been made on the proposal to relocate the service to the McColl’s store.

I just want to say how welcome the news is that the process has been paused to allow for the exploration of alternatives that would keep the service in Torre.

I thank my hon. Friend for his remarks, and I am sure Post Office will be delighted to hear them as well. Post Office has been undergoing a successful transformation programme across its network. The consultation process has been a positive and effective way of engaging with local communities. Current discussions between the Post Office and the community show that that process is working, and I am delighted that it is working in Torre.

Citizens Advice recently reported that the process has become increasingly effective, with improvements agreed or reassurances provided in most cases. In the last year, that has been the case after nine out of every 10 of Post Office’s consultations. I assure my hon. Friend that Post Office is committed to maintaining services to the community and to finding a permanent solution that best meets the needs of the business, its customers and the overall community.

I echo the note on which my hon. Friend started his speech and congratulate Post Office on the fact that it is now at its most stable for years. More than 3,000 “last shop in the village” branches in rural areas have been protected. After a decade of underinvestment and closures up to 2010—my hon. Friend detailed several of those years—the network is now increasing its number of outlets. As I reported earlier, it is now in profit and able to make the investment in new technology that it will need and in new banking services that it now offers by virtue of an arrangement with Lloyds Bank.

Post offices will now be able to meet 95% of the banking needs of small and medium-sized enterprises and 99% of those of consumers across the country. That is a huge achievement. I pay tribute to the hard work of Paula Vennells, the chief executive, her leadership team, members of the Communication Workers Union, sub-postmasters and sub-postmistresses and all staff working in the Post Office, who have effected that marvellous turnaround over the last decade.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.