The petition of residents of Heywood and Middleton,
Declares that Crown Post Offices provide a vital service to their communities; further that Post Office Limited propose to close Heywood Post Office and to franchise the service to a local retailer; further that there is concern that this will adversely affect jobs, quality of service, and accessibility, and have a negative impact on Heywood 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 Limited to keep Heywood Post Office open at its current location.
And the petitioners remain, etc.—[Presented by Liz McInnes, Official Report, 25 June 2019; Vol. 662, c. 606.]
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 Heywood and across the UK. This 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 allows the company the commercial freedom to deliver this strategy as an independent business.
We understand that changes to Post Office services will be a concern to some local residents of Heywood, but franchising proposals will help retain Post Office services on high streets throughout the country and bring further investment and modernisation for customers. The Post Office has always been a franchise network: 50 years ago, 92% of the network was operated on a franchise basis and there has been active franchising of Crown branches for 30 years. Today, 98% of the network operates successfully on a franchise or agency basis.
The Post Office’s proposals to franchise or host Crown branches, including the Heywood 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. Citizens Advice has been involved throughout the franchising process as consumer watchdog and its evidence concludes that customer satisfaction remained high in franchised branches. Furthermore, in terms of quality of service and access arrangements a recent report by Citizens Advice indicates that franchised branches are performing in line with or better than traditional branches.
WHSmith has been successfully operating post offices within its stores since 2017 and currently runs over 200 branches, demonstrating proficiency to run the branch in Heywood should the consultation lead to the branch relocation. The franchise arrangement will bring extended opening hours and seven-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 Heywood, this ran for six 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, should the relocation go ahead, 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 26 March 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 is currently reviewing feedback received and a decision is yet to be reached.
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 Heywood. 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.