Post Office Network Change Programme (Agenda Item 6)
- Meeting of Overview and Scrutiny Commission, Thursday, 27th September, 2007 2.15 pm (Item 95.)
- View the declarations of interest for item 95.
A briefing paper is attached for members’ information and Mr John Levantis of Postwatch will be in attendance for this review.
The Commission considered a briefing paper from the Operations Manager for Commercial Services and a presentation was received from Mr. J. Levantis, Regional Committee Member of Postwatch, an independent body set up under the Postal Services Act 2000 and whose principal statutory objective is to “protect, promote and develop the interests of all customers of postal services in the United Kingdom”.
In July 2007, Post Office Ltd announced that it was embarking on a Network Change Programme following the Government’s announcement in May 2007 on its future policy towards the Post Office network.
The Government had recognised the need to modernise and reshape the post office network against the backdrop of falling customer numbers, the decline in traditional services, changing consumer behaviour and rising losses (now standing at £4m a week). The Government’s proposals involved:
- The proposed closure nationwide of up to 2,500 branches (out of 14,300 currently) (both urban and rural)
- The introduction of minimum access criteria in respect of the remaining branches
- Future Government support funding for the network
- The introduction of 500 ‘outreach’ branches
There were approximately 52 post offices in Breckland, of which approximately 10% could be affected.
Post Office Ltd (POL) was required to maintain a network against the following criteria:
1. 99% of the population to be within 3 miles (i.e. walking distance) and 90% of the population to be within 1 mile of a post office
2. 99% of the population in deprived urban areas to be within 1 mile of a post office
3. 95% of the urban population to be within 1 mile of a post office
4. 95% of the rural population to be within 3 miles of a post office
5. For each post code district, 95% of the population of the postcode to be within 6 miles of a post office
When reviewing the network, POL was also required to take into consideration the physical environment, availability of public transport and alternative access to key services, local demographics and the impact on local economies.
The Government was expecting the changes to be implemented over an 18 month period. The country had been divided into 50 areas, each of which would have a local plan and be subject to a detailed planning process and be subject to a 6 weeks’ public consultation period starting in March 2008.
A certain amount of partner activity had already commenced, involving the Norfolk Rural Community Council, all Norfolk Local Authorities and Postwatch as part of a pre-consultation process.
In his presentation to members, Mr Levantis explained that Postwatch’s role was to:
• Scrutinise proposals to ensure that POL takes all relevant ‘on the ground’ facts into consideration
• Ensure that POL adheres to the Government’s access criteria
• Encourage meaningful local engagement and feedback
• Work with POL and the local community where it felt plans needed amending
Under the pre-consultation stage, Postwatch would receive POL’s plans 10 weeks before public consultation, scrutinise the proposals through fieldwork and research and give feedback on plans.
In the consultation stage, Postwatch would ensure POL was consulting properly, raise awareness, encourage meaningful participation and ensure POL took local needs into account in its decision. Postwatch could also initiate a review process but it did not have the power to veto proposals.
As explained in the briefing paper to members, clearly the loss of any post office would be a loss to that community, which would be felt even harder in rural communities. Although there would be an economic impact, the loss of jobs would not be as great as the loss of a community service. In rural areas like Breckland, post office income usually supplemented retail income such as a grocery or newsagent business. It was possible that without the post office, the remaining business was not viable and could close. The consequent impact of the loss of not only a post office but also the local shop could be severe in rural areas.
During discussion, it was noted that nearly 90% of rural post offices failed to make a profit, 1 in every 5 rural branches had fewer than 70 customer visits a week and that the cost to POL of a single transaction was £17. Set against a picture of falling trade and changing customer needs, it was recognised that the post office network needed to change and the aim of the Network Change Programme was to a achieve a post office network that was stable and sustainable for the long term.
The main area of concern raised by members was the effect on rural communities which already suffered from existing poor or withdrawal of public transport provision by commercial operators, which would be compounded if the loss of a post office meant that the local retail outlet also closed as a consequence.
There were also implications for local service centres and affordable housing development plans under the Local Development Framework, one of the criteria for which was that a centre should have a shop/post office.
Members feared the combined effect could ultimately be to stifle economic growth in the rural district.
A point was made that some rural retail outlets were not large enough to sustain a post office, even if the post office was supplementary to their main business. It therefore became an economic development issue to support the development of larger, more viable rural business outlets which could, in turn, support a local post office. Diversification was a vital issue for the area and could help post offices survive.
A member also highlighted the fact that the post code criterion was not necessarily a true access indicator. For instance, some rural villages in the Breckland area had a Peterborough post code and yet were nearer to Norwich.
After a long debate, members agreed it was important to research and gather evidence to build a picture of post offices across the district, to identify the issues of viability, accessibility and need, in advance of the public consultation, so that a detailed and robust response can be made.
It was suggested and agreed that members were best placed and had a responsibility to look at the situation in their individual wards and to identify their needs and issues and to feed these back to the Council.
The Commission accordingly
RECOMMENDED to Cabinet that a letter be sent to all members of the Council to advise them of the impending closure programme and public consultation timetable and asking them to feed back guidance to the Council’s LDF and Economic Development teams on issues of the viability, needs and associated issues within their wards.