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7 September 2004

Post Office Closures in Edinburgh

John Barrett (Edinburgh, West) (LD): On 22 July, the last day of Parliament before the summer recess, my constituency office in Edinburgh received a much anticipated package. After two years of waiting, Post Office management finally gave me their post office closure plans for the city of Edinburgh. That is a process that I, and others, have expected for some time. It is 23 months since the House voted for the urban reinvention programme, and since then my constituents and I have waited anxiously for Post Office plans for our city.

I was grateful to get one week's advance notice of closure plans before they were made public. It gave me an opportunity to speak not only to representatives of the Post Office but to the affected sub-postmasters. I was able to meet Postwatch Scotland, to which I pay tribute. I am particularly grateful to people such as Tricia Dow, Tom Begg and Peter Wilson, whose assistance and advice during the last few weeks has been invaluable.

When I considered the closure plans, I had no doubt that, when published, they would spark outrage among people in Edinburgh. After all, what Post Office management are proposing is the closure of 21 post office branches—one fifth of the city's remaining post office network. I say "remaining" because the closure proposals come after some branches have already closed in the last couple of years, such as the one on North Junction street, Tynecastle, Polwarth gardens, Newcraighall and Hope Street post office in the city centre.

The reaction of people in Edinburgh has indeed been considerable. More than 1,000 of my constituents have contacted my office to express their anger, concern and genuine worry. I have received many letters and telephone calls from people outside my constituency and the Edinburgh Evening News has run regular stories and printed letters about the plans on a near-daily basis. The strength of opinion in my constituency alone prompted me to organise two public meetings, although I was unable to attend them for last-minute family reasons. Both meetings were packed and included many people who said that they had never been to a public meeting before. It is clear that concern about the proposals not only runs through Edinburgh but runs very deep indeed.

So why are so many people so angry? What we were promised by the Government and by Post Office management was a strategic look at the post office network in Edinburgh. What we have been given falls far short of that. Rather than getting a strategic review, we have seen Post Office management effectively ask sub-postmasters, "Who wants out?" Closures have been picked from those who subsequently raised their hands.

I do not blame sub-postmasters; one can only sympathise with people who run post offices and who have to deal with a Government who are dramatically reducing their customer base. Who can blame them for wanting to take the two and a half year salary to leave the network and run? However, we cannot have a strategic look at the overall post office network if we pick out the branches only from those where the sub-postmasters have shown a desire to get out. Nobody likes compulsory post offices closures, but Post Office management cannot have their cake and eat it. They cannot say that they have conducted a strategic review if they have not conducted a review of the whole post office network. That is something that Postwatch Scotland is also concerned about.

That most basic mistake makes me believe that the process is fundamentally flawed. What makes me and people in Edinburgh so angry is that if Post Office management had actually taken a strategic view, I have no doubt that they would never have come to the conclusion that post office branches such as the ones in Clermiston, Joppa and Stenhouse Cross should close.

What I hope may yet happen—I hope that the Minister will impress it on Post Office management to do this today—is that we go back to the drawing board and do what we were all promised. Post Office management must consider areas that need post offices, those that have too many branches and then—and only then—come forward with a credible list of closures and alternative branches. That is what I had always taken the urban network reinvention process to be, but so far my constituents and I have been greatly disappointed.

So what have Post Office management done? They have put forward 21 branches for closure, after staff were sent to investigate the terrain, public transport and viability of the receiving branches—those that would take the customers from the closed post offices. If those investigations actually took place—although I have some concern about that—it makes the conclusions reached by the Post Office management all the more incredible.

I shall give two examples. East Craigs post office, a branch that was not only successfully saved from closure four years ago, but which serves three sets of sheltered housing for the elderly and one for disabled people, is one of the branches proposed for closure. The supporting documents argue that Barnton post office is a realistic receiving branch—a realistic alternative. That is partly based on the argument that people can use the No. 24 bus to get there. However, anyone who knows East Craigs will know that there is a problem in getting to the No. 24 bus stop. Someone wanting to get that bus must walk, in some cases along roads with no pavements, to a main road completely outside the East Craigs estate—a walk of about half a mile. To reach the bus stop they must then cross the busy Maybury road, a dual carriageway with traffic moving at about 60 miles an hour, which has no pedestrian crossing. They can then take the half-hourly bus service to Barnton. If they have managed to stay alive in their journey to the post office, they have an equally threatening journey back. And yet the Post Office management seriously presented that to the elderly and disabled people in East Craigs as a realistic alternative.

Similarly, in the supporting documents for the closure of the East Craigs and Clermiston branches, the post office at Duart Crescent is put forward as the alternative. The paths between East Craigs and Duart Crescent are narrow and poorly lit; they are paths that even the most able-bodied people would do well to negotiate in the winter. Moreover, probably the steepest hill in my constituency lies between the Duart Crescent and Clermiston post office branches. Even if we ignore those two factors and assume that my constituents in East Craigs and Clermiston actually get to the Duart Crescent branch, we find that they will then be met with an extremely small and already very busy post office. On pension mornings, there is a queue out of the door of the Duart Crescent branch—pensioners wait in the rain.
I could not understand how that small branch would cope with the custom from two other post offices, so I looked at the supporting documents to see what plans the management had to help the Duart Crescent branch deal with the increased demand and customer base. The document states that as proposed improvements
" a handrail is to be installed"
and
" an external bell push is to be installed."
That post office needs a handrail for elderly and disabled customers, and later this year it will have to have a handrail and proper access for the disabled. I am sure that those improvements will make all the difference. For those of my constituents who are still not convinced, the document finishes reassuringly by saying
" We will also install an approved fascia and lozenge."

I say to the Minister that this would all be comical if it were not so serious. The idea that those improvements—if that is the right word to use—will solve the unquestionable capacity problems at Duart Crescent is ridiculous.

I could go on. Corstorphine post office has also been put forward as an alternative to the Clermiston and East Craigs branches, although that would involve customers travelling past the St. John's Road post office, which, for some reason, has not been put down as a receiving branch. It is unbelievable that customers would pass a post office on the way to the alternative branch. There are serious flaws in that document.

The branch at Stenhouse Cross, a lifeline for people in Stenhouse, has been lined up for closure less than one year after an original plan for closure was reversed following a public outcry and an objection from Postwatch. The branch at Saughtonhall was closed and cleared out—there are no post office facilities—even before the consultation period began. The alternative for Murrayfield post office, a branch that serves five sets of accommodation for the elderly, is proposed as Blackhall post office, despite the fact there is no bus service connecting the two. On the road from Corstorphine to the city centre, the post office at Saughtonhall has gone, the one at Murrayfield is under threat and the Haymarket Terrace branch closed many years ago. A huge journey into the city centre is therefore needed.

Mr. Mark Lazarowicz (Edinburgh, North and Leith)(Lab/Co-op): I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for agreeing to take an intervention. As he is now approaching my constituency in his tour of Edinburgh, I invite him to agree with me that we need more new and modernised post offices, such as the ones in Stockbridge and Leith Constitution street, which have recently been reopened. Does he agree that we need to make a good case against a closure when it is proposed? In connection with that, would he back the efforts that I am making on behalf of my constituents, who are very unhappy at the proposed closure of post offices in Newhaven village and Albert place? Many of my constituents have concerns, as I am sure many of his do, about the proposed closure of Comely Bank post office, which, although in another constituency, serves many of our constituents.

John Barrett: I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. I agree with much of what he says, in that if a proposal is made to close a post office, the alternative must be, as the Post Office said, bigger, brighter and better. However, that is clearly not the case, and minor improvements are not good enough for his constituents or mine. Equally, constituents using a post office such as Comely Bank, or others that are just across constituency boundaries, have no concern as to which constituency the post office is located in if it is their neighbourhood post office. I would certainly back campaigns by the hon. Gentleman to ensure that our constituents have decent and reasonable access to a local post office.

How the Post Office management were able to stand up at two public meetings in my constituency and keep a straight face is beyond me. When local residents pointed out many flaws at the most basic level in the management's conclusions, they were met with puzzled faces on the platform. I therefore hope that, before this consultation process ends and certainly before any final decisions are taken, the management will revisit the branches that they plan to close, walk between them and try to use the public transport. I believe that, if they do so, they will see for themselves why so many people are so angry at what is proposed.

That said, it would be wrong to single out the Post Office management as the only people to blame. My views and those of my party on the Government's push towards direct payment are well known and I do not want to rehearse them here. However, the Minister should be made aware of the anger among older people in my constituency. Many were happy with their pension book and trusted and understood that system. They are not only being forced into a new, more complicated system, but are being blocked from obtaining their first preference: the Post Office card account. I have already written to the Minister for Pensions to raise those concerns. No wonder post office business is on the slide when it is so difficult to open a Post Office card account. People should be able to expect their Government to do everything they can to keep post offices open. In reality, many feel that the Government are doing the exact opposite and are doing everything they can to close as many post offices as possible.

The supermarket company Morrison's also deserves a mention in the debate. As the Minister will know, it has taken a blanket decision not to continue running post offices located in the Safeway stores that it has taken over. Because of that, the busiest post office in my constituency, which is in the South Gyle shopping centre, is also set to close. After I inquired as to the reason behind the decision, Roger Owen of Morrison's wrote to me on 9 August. He said:
 
" It has never been the policy of this company to run post offices within its stores .. . . we quickly discovered that due to the pure bureaucracy of Post Office Limited, we were effectively prevented from running this service at a level which would be profitable to the company."

After my own experience with the Post Office over the past few years, I am quite sympathetic to the view expressed by Morrison's, but I must also say that there is for the company such a thing as corporate and social responsibility. For a company that is predicted to make £320 million in profit this year basically to say that it can make more of a profit by closing a vital post office that occupies a small site in its Gyle store is pretty irresponsible. That says to its customers that selling tins of beans is more important than providing an important public service, which is pretty bad public relations for a company that is trying to break into a new market in Scotland.

That is not to let the Post Office management off the hook. I believe that they have an opportunity and, indeed, a responsibility to find an alternative site for the post office somewhere in the Gyle shopping centre. After all, it is a profitable post office that is used by many people from throughout Edinburgh and across Lothian. Certainly the people who run the Gyle centre have been sympathetic to the need for a post office on site and, with a new wing opening, there are a range of available units in which a post office could be sited. However, yet again I have received excuse after excuse from the Post Office management as to why that cannot happen. It is all too typical of the "can't do" attitude of the Post Office—an attitude that I and many others find increasingly frustrating.

It is vital that the consultation that we are in the midst of is genuine, open and thorough. I have spent much of my summer contacting those affected and encouraging them to object to the Post Office's proposals and copy their objections to Postwatch. However, those who have already objected often receive responses that repeat the reason for closing the branch in question rather than address the concerns. I do not expect the Post Office management to respond in detail to each comment, but I—and, I am sure, the Minister—do expect it to not only listen to what people throughout Edinburgh are saying, but respond to those views. If a guarantee cannot be given on that point, it will make a complete mockery of the whole process.

The package of closure proposals presented to post office customers and the people of Edinburgh is inconsistent and based on a number of odd assumptions. The Post Office management has picked some of the last post offices that people ever thought would be threatened with closure. Even at this stage, I hope that the Post Office, with the Minister's influence, will look at the entire issue once again. I want, and the people of Edinburgh deserve, exactly what we have been promised for two years: a serious, genuine consideration of the post office network in Edinburgh. The residents of Edinburgh, particularly the elderly and less mobile, must have access to a decent post office network throughout the city. That is all that they are asking for. That is only fair, and they should get nothing less.

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This website was established while I was a Member of Parliament. The site content is being kept online as a source of information, but all forms / email have been disabled.