Extract from Hansard

Saving Our Post Office – House of Commons Debate

David Laws MP held a debate in the House of Commons on Tuesday 24th June at 11am on the future of the Post Office network in Somerset. One of the key areas of focus in this debate was Hinton St George’s Post Office with much of the debate taken discussing the village itself, Peter & Sue Knight and their 20 year service to the village and the strong passion and business case for keeping the Post Office open. Much detail about our case was debated in the Commons with support gained from many other MPs who joined the debate. Follow the below link to Parliaments website for full coverage of the Commons debate.

UK Parliament – 24th June 2008 – Somerset Post Offices

Mr. David Laws (Yeovil) (LD):  I want to focus on one post office, which is at Hinton St. George in the heart of my constituency. Its planned closure was announced just a few weeks ago, which rubbed salt into the wound following an announcement a couple of days earlier that the five other post offices in my constituency that were earmarked for closure were to be closed. The post office at Hinton St. George was not on Post Office Ltd’s original target list and was 
included only because another post office a considerable distance away in Somerset was saved as a consequence of the consultation in that area.

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD): The only one.

Mr. Laws: The only one in Somerset, and one of two in the entire area.

For those who do not know Hinton St. George—there may be some—it is a beautiful village in the centre of south Somerset. I say that not just because all our villages are beautiful—no doubt they are in all constituencies—but Hinton St. George is particularly striking. It is a historic heritage settlement with a population approaching 500, not including the many people who pass through daily to get to the school, and the many tourists and others from the surrounding catchment area of 1,500 people. The main part of the village is a wide main street lined with hamstone cottages, many of which are thatched. The guide book states that it has a “thriving shop”, which is true, but unfortunately that thriving shop is where the post office is located. It is threatened with closure, although it has been a post office since 1840 and the era of the penny black.

The village is not on a main road, and the roads that come into it are single track with no pavements. That adds to the village’s quiet and calm and the feeling that it is from a pre-car age, but that also means that it is difficult for my constituents to access services outside the village because of public transport and because they cannot walk along roads with no pavements. I shall come to that later.

There is a popular village school, an excellent tea shop, a pub with a national reputation, and, notably for the purposes of the consultation, one of the largest retired populations of any village in Somerset, with 37 per cent. of its inhabitants being of pension age, which is a high proportion by any standards. There is a strong sense of community in the village, and that has been on display since the announcement that the post office was included in those earmarked for closure a couple of weeks ago. There has been a lot of media attention, both in the local area and in the region, about the possible closure. A packed public meeting in the village was attended by half of its residents, and people overflowed from the main village hall to outside.

The postmasters, Peter and Sue Knight, are both popular and have run the post office store for more than 20 years. They are keen to continue the business, and an active campaign committee has already been established in the village. I pay tribute to the committee, which is leading a non-political campaign. It consists of Les Farris, Derek Esp, Liz Davis, Matthew Bryant, David Clements, Andrew Norton and Kerry King, as well as three representatives from the parish council, chairman Fred Voss, and members Jane Bourne and Brian Smith. The campaign hopes to have a public meeting with Post Office Ltd and to meet the Postwatch group. I have already met Post Office Ltd’s regional manager, Tony Jones, who kindly travelled at short notice from Bridgend in Wales to discuss the matter. That was much appreciated.

I hope that the Minister will get the message that there is a lot of passion about keeping the post office open, as there often is, but it is even greater than normal. The extremely strong business case for keeping it open is particularly striking, even by the Government’s criteria, and I shall touch on three or four of the issues.

One issue is distance and proximity to other post offices. There is a small postal service at the garage in the village of Merriott, which is about 1.5 miles away, but it has not been earmarked by Post Office Ltd as one of the two alternative post offices in the branch access report because it does not provide the range of services necessary to meet the access requirements. Indeed, it has gone out of business in two different forms and under two different managers during the past 18 months. It has only just found its feet again in the petrol station and retail unit in the centre of the village. I understand that it is doing extremely well under its new managers, but like all units located in larger retail and petrol station outlets in rural areas, it is bound to face many pressures over the years to come. However, because it does not supply a full range of post office services, it does not meet the criteria specified in the consultation.

The other post offices that Post Office Ltd has suggested as alternatives for that community are at South Petherton and Crewkerne. South Petherton is 3.5 miles away, and there is no direct public transport link; and Crewkerne is 3 miles away. The Government’s minimum access criteria, which are supposed to have informed the consultation and closure programme, are that 90 per cent. of the population should be within 1 mile of the nearest outlet, and that clearly will not be met if the closure goes ahead; and in rural areas that 95 per cent. of the population should live within 3 miles. It seems to me that the case for closure fails both tests.

On the question of access and public transport, the Post Office was very open, saying that access to the alternative post offices was not good. The lanes out of Hinton St. George are narrow, single-track roads without pavements. It would be unrealistic to expect anyone, particularly the elderly or those with young children, to walk along those lanes, as they are extremely dangerous. South Petherton has no direct public transport link. On the option of not using public transport, the branch access report states that

“the terrain between the branches is hilly along a narrow country lane with no pavement.”

It also states that parking is difficult near the post office, which as I said is 3.5 miles away.

Merriott, which is not the main alternative, would be impossible to reach on foot, and the only public transport service that would bring passengers back to the village from which they had departed runs on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays—and that involves waiting two hours for the next bus back.

As for Crewkerne, which is 3 miles distant, the branch access report states:

“The terrain between the branches is hilly along narrow country lanes”.

There are only two bus services a day, one of which involves a two-hour wait for the return service; the other means waiting for four hours and 10 minutes. The parking facilities in Crewkerne are restricted and under pressure. The branch access report claimed that

“parking facilities are available within 60 yards of the branch”,

but there are only four or five spaces, with limited time, and in my experience they are almost always full. The distance to the branches is great, there is little or nor public transport, people are not able to walk to them, and the parking facilities are poor.

Disabled access and access for elderly people is another big issue. The existing shop and post office in Hinton St. George is ideal for the elderly and disabled because it gives them easy access, with generous parking facilities outside. However, as I said earlier, 37 per cent. of people in the village are retired, and a large number are very elderly and find it difficult to walk long distances. The village also has a large number of people with physical and learning disabilities. Although it is easy to gain access to the existing facility in Hinton St. George, that is not the case for the alternatives. Access to South Petherton is a long journey over hilly terrain. The branch does not have disabled access; indeed, there are steps up to the post office, and there is no wheelchair access. As I said earlier, there is no direct bus service.

As I said, it is not possible to reach Crewkerne on foot, and disabled access is not readily available on the bus. Only one bus in the local fleet has a wheelchair lift, but apparently it is broken and the bus company has said that it cannot afford to replace it. Even if it is replaced, there is no guarantee that it would be available on that route. Although there are some low-platform buses in that part of Somerset, there are not many, and they cannot be used on any of the services to and from Hinton because of the narrowness of the lanes in the surrounding area. On distance, public transport and disability, the alternative post offices have serious impediments, so they should not be considered as viable alternatives to the existing post office.

The assumptions that the Post Office makes on the transferability of services—I understand that they are an important part of judging which post offices should stay and which should go—may not be sound. The Minister may be able to clarify the matter, but I understand that we are not allowed to know what those assumptions are, nor to see the ranking list of post offices. They are ranked according to four sets of criteria, and those criteria are fundamental in determining which post offices should stay and which should go. I ask the Minister to consider giving us sight of the criteria for Somerset, because it might help in determining whether assumptions are based on a realistic judgement of the Hinton post office and the alternatives.

I also raise the issue of other post offices in the area that are at risk of closure. I hope that Post Office Ltd will be able to find new sub-postmasters for the post offices at Buckland St. Mary and East Chinnock, as one has left and the other has said recently that he will be leaving. What will happen, given that East Chinnock is relatively near to the area that we are discussing, if either or both of those post offices close? Although East Chinnock is a substitute closure, will there still be a determination to press ahead with finding an additional office to close—even if, by default, another post office closure turns out to be unavoidable?

Given that those other post offices seem similar in some ways, or have even smaller catchment areas than the one in Hinton St. George, could we not see the ranking list at least for the Yeovil constituency element of Somerset in order to determine the relative ranking of those post offices that appear to be at risk of closure by their own means? I am far from convinced that we would find a rational basis for ranking them that far apart. Will the Minister say whether it would be possible to establish how far apart they are, and the basis of that calculation?