Post Office consultation: Nick Herbert's formal response

Introduction

On 14 December 2006 the Government launched a 12-week national consultation on their proposal to close up to 2,500 branches across the country.  It ended on 8 March 2007.

Following this consultation, Post Office Ltd is now implementing its Network Change Programme.  The Government has set new access criteria, with 95 per cent of the total rural population across the UK to be within 3 miles of their nearest post office outlet.

The first Area Plan for Sussex was launched on 13 November 2007, heralding the start of a six-week public consultation that will end on 24 December.

Two post office branches in the Arundel and South Downs constituency have been proposed for closure: Washington and Slindon.  I am submitting this response on behalf of my constituents in these villages who use these services and who wish to retain them.

4,000 post offices have closed since the Government came to power in 1997, representing a quarter of the entire network.  Two branches have already closed in the Arundel and South Downs constituency since 1999.  I am concerned about any further downgrading of the network, since I believe that post offices are an important public service in rural areas.

The case for retaining local post offices

1. Local services

Post offices are a focal point of village life, particularly in rural areas. They have a social role, providing a meeting place where people can interact with others in their community.

The closure of post offices in Washington and Slindon will further isolate and exclude vulnerable people, especially the elderly and disabled.

Many people, especially the elderly and young mothers, do not have access to their own transport or simply cannot travel very far.  For them, the local post office is a lifeline.

2. Access to alternative branches

Public transport in the rural South Downs is inevitably limited.  The criteria requiring 95 per cent of the population to have access to a post office within three miles sounds reasonable, but for elderly people who do not drive and are relying on infrequent public transport, a post office branch up to three miles away is effectively inaccessible.

3. Sustainable communities

Post Offices provide a significant contribution to the sustainability of our local communities, particularly in rural areas.  In the age of ‘out-of-town' supermarkets and internet shopping, local services are already under great pressure.  We should find ways to strengthen such services, not allow them to be further undermined.

4. Impact on local businesses

I question whether any assessment has been made of the impact of closing post office branches on local firms, and in particular ‘micro' businesses.  At a time when West Sussex local authorities are promoting the value of local businesses, this is an important consideration .

5. Environmental consequences

The closure of post offices will lead to more car and bus journeys by people wishing to access post office services.  This will increase congestion on our roads and increase carbon emissions.

We are supposed to be reducing our impact on the environment.  Instead, the withdrawal of local services is making it difficult for people to reduce their dependence on cars and buses.

6. Increased costs for customers

Travelling to alternative branches will, for those who are able to travel, cost more.  There will be the added expenses involved in driving, parking and using the bus.

7. Inadequacy of the consultation process

The consultation period of six weeks, with a deadline on Christmas Eve, is too short.  The closure of post offices raises a number of complex questions for our communities and local authorities.  It provides little time for communities to examine the impact of a closure and present a detailed submission.  There is a lot of public interest in the closure of local post offices, which is why my colleague Charles Hendry MP, Shadow Minister for Postal Affairs, has called for the consultation to be extended to twelve weeks.

West Sussex has been split into two areas for the consultation process - the current consultation does not include post offices in the Bognor and Littlehampton and Chichester constituencies.  It means that those trying to save the post office in Slindon, for example, do not know what will happen in neighbouring areas and which may have an impact on them.

8. Outreach services

Why is it that so few post offices facing closure have been considered for outreach services?  We are told that outreach services will not be introduced to replace a post office proposed for closure, but it would seen sensible to consider them as an alternative to a fixed branch in some rural villages.

Washington

The post office is run from a small site adjacent to The Frankland Arms in London Road.

Washington is one of the principal villages along the South Downs with a population of 1,930 (Census 2001).  The post office is currently open for only 20 hours a week, from 9am to 1pm on weekdays.  It is closed on Saturdays and Sundays.  However, the local Parish Council reports that the post office is not always open at the times advertised.

We are told that less than 50 ‘customer sessions' take place here each week, but this is not surprising given that the branch is unable to provide the level of service required to secure its long-term viability.

The nearest post office, in Ashington, is 2.4 miles away.  Storrington is 2.6 miles away.  It is unrealistic to expect people to travel to these branches along busy main roads except by car.

There is a plan to open a village shop on the former West Sussex Motors garage site, along with affordable housing.  The Parish Council organised a public meeting in September to ascertain whether the local community would be willing to run the shop.  The meeting was a great success and the community are now actively planning for the new project with the help of Action in Rural Sussex.

It is hoped that the post office will move into the shop, which is located on the busy A283 where it can attract passing trade.  Post Office Ltd should be giving them every encouragement and support.

Slindon

Slindon Post Office is housed in a Grade II listed cottage owned by the National Trust.

According to Post Office Ltd, 30-40 people are using the post office each week, with an average of 58 ‘customer sessions'.  Gary Herbert, National Development Manager of Post Office Ltd, suggested that the reason for the closure of Slindon post office was the lack of support from local people.

The problem is that the branch is only open for nine hours each week - on Monday, Wednesday and Thursday mornings - so people decide to go elsewhere.  If the post office was open more often, and its services were combined with those of a village shop which has also been lost, it would be used more by local people.

Access to the two alternative branches identified in the Branch Access Report is poor.  There are no direct buses from Slindon to either Walberton or Eastergate.  There is also limited parking available.  Walberton is 1.9 miles away and Eastergate is 2.5 miles away.  To get to these branches, people would have to cross the busy A29 and the A27, the main east-west arterial route across West Sussex.  This is clearly totally unrealistic for anyone who does not have a car. 

I urge the Post Office to consider Slindon for an outreach service of some kind.  I understand that outreach services will not be introduced to replace a post office proposed for closure.  But the closure of the post office will be the final straw for the village - it has already lost its village shop and public house in recent times.  There is an opportunity for the village to re-build its services around a single outlet, with the post office playing an important role.  The alternative is a spiral of decline, with the withdrawal of the post office representing the final straw.

Conclusion

The closure of post offices is part of a highly regrettable wider trend to downgrade local services in rural areas.  We have already seen this with the threat to our hospitals, the reduction of Police Community Support Officers promised by the Government, and the recent reduction of train services along the Arun Valley line through Ford, Arundel, Amberley and Pulborough.

We all understand the need to improve the viability of local post offices.  But we should also recognise that they are a vital service for our community - a public service.

The Government has overseen the gradual removal of products and services from post offices without enabling them to compete for new business.  The Post Office should be able to offer a wider range of goods and services. 

Instead of closing local branches, the Post Office should be planning for the future, providing the vision for a successful and profitable network that maintains this important public service for local communities.

NICK HERBERT
MP for Arundel & South Downs

Michelle Taylor