East Dunbartonshire background & characteristics
East Dunbartonshire is a suburban constituency with a population of 84,600. It covers the towns of Bearsden, Milngavie, Bishopbriggs, along with Lenzie, part of Kirkintilloch and a number of smaller rural settlements. There are currently 9 Post Offices in the constituency, with 4 others having closed since 2004.
Access to Post Offices
The consultation document sets out access criteria that will inform the restructuring of the national post office network. These state that, among others, 95% of the population in urban areas should be within 1 mile, and 95% of the population in rural areas within 3 miles, of a Post Office. However, the consultation document declines to define exactly what is meant by ‘urban’ and ‘rural’.
My constituency of East Dunbartonshire is mainly suburban, with small areas of industry and some areas that would be considered rural. A lack of definitions in the consultation document make it unclear as to which parts of my constituency would fall into which access category, or indeed in how much detail the access categories will be drawn. I would be wary of seeing rural areas fall into an inappropriate access category where they are situated relatively close to urban areas.
Post Office closures
As mentioned above, my constituency contains 9 Post Offices, and we have lost 4 others since 2004. Having suffered a 30% loss in Post Office numbers already, to face any further closures in East Dunbartonshire would be simply unacceptable.
Though it is not stated in the consultation document, prior experience in a particular area, such as this level of Post Office closures, should inform future decisions over closures. Relief should be given to the areas that have already been badly hit by a loss of Post Offices.
The experience in the town of Bishopbriggs is a telling one. When the Post Office counter at the local Morrisons supermarket faced closure, a town of 23,500 people was threatened with being without a Post Office in its centre. I ran a campaign to save the local Post Office, including collecting over 4,000 signatures from local residents. The result was a new Post Office being installed in a town centre newsagent, which is now operating successfully as part of a healthy local business.
Though the threatened closure in Bishopbriggs was not one planned or compensated by Government, there are lessons to be learned from the experience. There may well be ways to avoid Post Office closures in many cases, where support can be given to local businesspeople willing to take on the role of sub-postmaster. The community need to be involved in the decision over closures, with the aim of making closure a last resort rather than a process imposed on communities.
Withdrawal of Post Office business
In describing the future shape of the Post Office network, the consultation document describes the need “To focus on a range of products and services that customers expect and need from their Post Office and how they can forge a sustainable business” (Section 4, pt 4.3). This is inconsistent with the Government’s approach to date, which has seen a withdrawal of Government business from the Post Office.
The Department for Work and Pensions has systematically moved towards direct payment, drivers are encouraged to buy vehicle licences online and the BBC have withdrawn the TV licence contract from the Post Office. I have surveyed my sub-Postmasters in East Dunbartonshire, and the issue of withdrawal of Government business was repeatedly raised as a factor damaging the viability of their businesses.
It is of course correct that customers have a choice over how to pay their car tax, tv licence etc, including using increasingly popular online means. However in addressing this point, the National Federation of Sub-Postmasters has expressed succinctly the approach that should be taken:
“NFSP has never argued against increased customer choice; we would however call for a level playing field, where the Government takes into account many consumers’ preference for and trust in the Post Office and promotes the network as one of the choices available to customers.”
The Government must reverse the trend of withdrawing its business from the Post Office. It must send a market signal that it supports the network, so that companies will be encouraged to invest in conducting their business through the Post Office as well.
Post Office Card Account
Another point commonly raised during my survey of sub-Postmasters was over the withdrawal of the Post Office Card Account. Since the survey was conducted, the Government has announced that it intends to continue with a form of the POCA, a decision that is welcome.
The Government has shown a positive commitment to tackle financial exclusion, however it is vital that with the new POCA, there is no pressure on users to switch to bank accounts prematurely. POCA has been very popular, far more than was expected when it was originally launched, and users of the account should be given a commitment that they will be able to continue using the service that has suited them well until now.
The consultation document states in Section 1, point 1.3, “A key element of this approach [to sustaining the Post Office network] has been the Government’s recognition of the important social and economic role Post Offices play in the communities they serve”.
It is wholly correct that foremost in Ministers’ minds should be the damage that is done to local communities by Post Office closures. In economic terms, the New Economics Foundation has suggested that every £10 earned in Post Offices generates £16 for the local economy. When the local Post Office closes, other businesses suffer greatly. In social terms, Post Offices can provide a hub for community activities, especially for elderly residents – a major factor, though not one that is easy to quantify or set targets against.
I am not convinced that some of the closures planned could not be avoided through greater involvement with local communities, such as was the case in Bishopbriggs. Nor am I convinced that the Government has helped the economic role of the Post Office, indeed it has directly hindered this through withdrawal of business.
A more positive view of the role of Post Offices would focus on the way in which sub-postmasters could be given the freedom to develop their businesses, within a climate of support from Government, particularly in the awarding of Government contracts for new business.
 National Federation of Subpostmasters Briefing Paper for Westminster Hall debate: ‘the Government Contract for the Post Office Card Account’ (15 February 2006)