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Stamped out
Local Government Chronicle – 20 February 2008

The Post Office's programme of branch closures has sparked fury across the country. Mark Smulian investigates how councils are battling to reverse the tide.

Portsmouth City Council is "furious", Sevenoaks DC is "disappointed", Cheshire CC "horrified" and Dartford BC considers it "immoral". What could have caused such nationwide outrage?

The Post Office branch closure programme, that's what. Few things are more calculated to anger residents than the loss of their local post office. It also lumbers councils with complex problems around community viability and social isolation which are not of their making and which they are largely powerless to address.

Community needs

One might think that, being publicly owned, the Post Office would consider community needs rather than simply pursue profit. But last year the government forced the Post Office to reduce - or, as it prefers, 'modernise' - its 14,300 network to cut out 2,500 branches.

Post offices do not just handle post, but function as local outlets for government services. As more of these, notably benefit payments, have migrated online or to banks the network's cost has become too high, the government claims. Thus the cull of 2,500 branches started in December which will last some 18 months. 'Outreach' services will replace 500 branches, typically by visits from a mobile postal service, while the rest will lose all services.

Closures on this scale would be bad enough if they just affected postal services, but most branches earmarked for closure are in villages or isolated suburbs where they are often double up as the only retail outlet. Sub-postmasters who run them are shopkeepers who usually rely on their postal business. If that is lost, so is the village shop, and another nail is driven into the coffin of precarious rural communities.

Risk in isolated areas

The Post Office's assertion that 99% of the population will still live within three miles of a branch does not go down well with isolated, often elderly, rural residents, who lack their own transport and stand to lose their only local shop too. Residents are looking to their local councils for solutions, but councils' powers are limited in dealing with what is essentially a problem centred on the viability of small private businesses.

On top of the injury to their communities, councils are smarting from the insult of the way in which the Post Office has handled its closures consultation. It allows six weeks for this, but treats councils like anyone else being consulted. This means they have minimal time to collect information that might forestall a closure - for example by demonstrating that the population around a branch is about to rise sharply because of planned regeneration. In November, Local Government Association chair Sir Simon Milton (Con) and London Councils chair Merrick Cockell (Con) asked the Post Office to allow councils a period of confidential pre-consultation to deal with this issue. They are still awaiting an answer.

Hampshire CC was among the first councils to learn the bad news about the scale of closures, when the Post Office announced in January the demise of 41 branches.

Leader Ken Thornber (Con) says: "The assumption that anyone living up to three miles from a post office can physically make the increased journey to use it is wrong, and the fact that post offices have a community role to play is being ignored."

He has investigated whether county council staff might be located in villages and offer some council services and information alongside operating a village shop and limited postal service, though there are as yet no details on how this could work.

"We would have to work out how to separate their county council duties from those of shopkeeping," he admits.

More tangibly, Cllr Thornber has put up 100,000 from the Local Authority Business Growth Initiative, which the South East England Development Agency will match, to create a fund to support community groups that want to run their own shop.

"I wanted to see if we could do anything towards equipping these shops, but without it being a recurring annual expense for us," Cllr Thornber says. "It is possible to set them up a charitable trust, so any profit is ploughed back."

He adds: "I can look at places in my constituency where the post office is also the grocer, greengrocer and the place where people gather for a natter, and closure hits the most isolated and vulnerable people in rural communities."

Judicial review

Kent CC tried to take the Post Office to judicial review over the closure of 56 out of 351 branches. This approach foundered on a counsel's opinion that Kent could challenge only the conduct of the consultation, not the closures themselves. Kent intends to press the Post Office for better 'outreach' services than it has offered, and plans to bring rural community bodies together to try to find a way to save local convenience stores.

Roger Gough (Con), cabinet member for regeneration and supporting independence, says: "The council tried to lead community opposition to the closures, but we were confronted by a steamroller. We are investigating whether we could support retailers with advice on how to cope with the impact. Shops will close, and some already have, but that advice might make the difference to some of them."

Stirling Council has been puzzled by the six closure decisions in its area since they have hit larger villages, most of which still have enough residents to sustain a primary school.

Deputy chief executive Rebecca Maxwell says: "We did not get a lot of information about why they picked the branches they did. The criteria were not clear and as three of them are close together we think they were chosen just because it was viable for a van to replace them."

However, the van visits would take place in a confusing pattern of two-hour visits at different times each day.

Stirling hopes to assist village shops, but it also wants to see if other local businesses could be paid by the Post Office to provide a limited service.

"The Post Office said no other businesses were interested, which turned out to be hardly surprising as the hourly rate they offered was less than we would charge the Brownies to hire a hall," Ms Maxwell says.

The council is pressing the watchdog Postwatch to review the closures, but this body is not a regulator and cannot halt them. Instead, it can merely ask for further consideration.

Disputes about the motives for closures inevitably raise strong feelings. When they were announced, Dartford BC leader Jeremy Kite (Con) called the five closures in his area "immoral" and denounced the consultation as "little more than a shabby camouflage to disguise a decision that had already been made behind closed doors".

He added: "I understand that the head of the post office is in line for a huge bonus if he can achieve the extra profits that will arise from these closures."

Cllr Gough said the Post Office, although a public body, "does not take account of public policy issues as they affect communities", while Hampshire's Cllr Thornber accused it of having been "high handed". He added: "If local authorities were to consult people in that fashion we would be criticised and rightly so. They have consulted knowing what the outcome will be."

Stirling's Ms Maxwell was particularly angered that the local media knew about the initial closure proposals before the council was told and commented "we had no more time than anyone else to object".

In Leicestershire, where consultation is in progress on 21 proposed closures, county council leader David Parsons (Con) has suggested that the consultation is unreal because the Post Office has a predetermined number of closures planned for each area, and that saving one branch would simply doom another. He recognises the Post Office's financial problems, but he fears the impact that the closures may have on the many people who rely on their local post office for essential services.

He says: "We are also particularly concerned that if we are successful in making the case to keep one or more post office, this could lead to others in the county being Threatened, because there is an agreed target number of closures for each area."

But a Post Office spokesman insists: "We have been set a target by the government of 2,500 closures, but it does not have to be bang on that. If one stayed open it would not necessarily mean another had to close."

He said the consultation was "genuine and a very important part of the programme", and that the Post Office had contacted councils prior to consultation "to receive information relevant to the areas under discussion".

Relations between councils and the Post Office are already poor, even though the closure programme has barely started.

Those affected later may at least be able to learn from councils already hit about the most effective ways to fill these gaps in their communities.