The petition of Heywood and Middleton,
Declares that Crown Post Offices provide a vital service to their communities; further that the Post Office propose to close the Middleton Crown Post Office and to franchise the service to a local branch of WH Smith; further that there is concern that this will adversely affect jobs, quality of service, and accessibility, and have a negative impact on Middleton town centre; and further that a local paper petition and online petition on this matter has received signatures.
The petitioners therefore request that the House of Commons urges the Government and Post Office Ltd to keep Middleton Crown Post Office open at its current location.
And the petitioners remain, etc.—[Presented by Liz McInnes, Official Report, 13 March 2019; Vol. 656, c. 481.]
Observations from the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (Kelly Tolhurst):
The Government value and recognise the important role that the Post Office plays in communities such as Middleton and across the UK. That is why we committed in our 2017 manifesto to safeguarding the Post Office network and protect existing rural services. Since 2010, the number of branches in the network has been at its most stable for decades, at over 11,500.
While the Post Office is publicly owned, it is a commercial business. The Government set the strategic direction for the Post Office - to maintain a national network accessible to all and to do so more sustainably for the taxpayer - and allow the company the commercial freedom to deliver this strategy as an independent business.
The Post Office’s proposals to franchise or host Crown branches, including the Middleton branch, are part of its plans to ensure a sustainable network in the face of challenging trading conditions in the Post Office’s core market and the wider retail sector. In fact, moving Crown post offices to retail partners has helped reduce losses in this part of the network from £46 million per year in 2012 to break-even today. Working with a retail partner is a sensible response to the challenges facing High Street retailers, enabling shared costs across the combined businesses, with the franchise partner benefiting from increased footfall and income from Post Office products. Furthermore, in terms of quality of service and access arrangements a recent report by Citizen’s Advice indicates that franchised branches are performing in line with or better than traditional branches.
We understand that changes to Post Office services will be a concern to some local residents of Middleton, but franchising proposals will help retain Post Office services on high streets throughout the country and bring further investment and modernisation for customers.
WHSmith has been successfully operating post offices within its stores since 2017 and currently runs over 130 branches, demonstrating proficiency to run the branch in Middleton. The franchise arrangement will bring extended opening hours and 7-day trading for customers offering a wide range of products and services.
In relation to accessibility, when relocating a branch, the Post office is aware of the needs of its customers, including the most vulnerable. In fact, the Post Office works with the new partner to ensure that Post Office branches meet all relevant legal accessibility requirements, whether branches are directly managed or franchised within WHSmith, and indeed all franchising partners.
The Post Office has a proven track record for going above and beyond to ensure convenient access for all customers, including those with disabilities or mobility issues. In fact, the Post Office now provides accessibility information on the on-line branch finder. The Post Office also invites the local community to submit comments on access as part of a formal consultation process.
Regarding the Post Office’s consultation in Middleton, this ran for 6 weeks and closed on 6 March 2019. This process sought to inform, and gather views from, opinion formers and local stakeholders on the proposed changes to the network and to allow the public to inform the Post Office’s plans for the new branch. The consultation document highlighted that the branch will be moving approximately 170 metres away from its current location, that opening hours will be extended by nine hours per week and will now include Sunday opening.
The Post Office also held a customer forum on 13 February to allow the public to speak to them directly. This process is in line with the Post Office’s Code of Practice on changes to the network agreed with Citizens Advice. A recent review by the Citizens Advice reported that the Post Office consultation process is increasingly effective, with improvements agreed in most cases, demonstrating that the Post Office listens to the community.
Following the consultation and review, Post Office Limited has made the decision to proceed with the proposal to move the Middleton Post Office into WHSmith at Unit G9 F9 Middleton Shopping Centre, Middleton, Manchester, M24 4EL where it will be operated by WHSmith High Street Limited. It is expected that the current branch will close at 17:30 on Wednesday 5 June 2019, with the new branch opening at 09:00 on Thursday 6 June 2019.
The sustainability and future success of the Post Office network remain of the utmost importance to the Government. We recognise their value to communities, residents, businesses and tourists in all parts of the UK, including Middleton. We will continue to honour our manifesto commitments so that Post Offices’ can thrive and remain at the heart of our rural and urban communities.