Just over 12 years ago, when I was a local Councillor for St Johns in Ipswich, and we still had a Labour Government, the Post Office carried out a review of local branches which led to several closures. The idea was to make sure that the spread of local Post Offices was sensible, so that everyone had an office within fairly easy reach, and there was enough business in each area for them to be viable. Sub-postmasters who did not believe their office was any longer viable were invited to close and receive a compensation payment – a little like being invited to take early retirement.
Across Ipswich, some of the offices which were scheduled for closure did not attract popular campaigns to remain open, because local people knew that there was a useable alternative not much further from their home and were willing to accept that not every branch could remain open. But in some cases, such as the St Johns Post Office in Spring Road, there were massive campaigns because so many local people relied on the branch there and would have been really stuck without it. This was particularly true of older people – there are a large number of older people living in sheltered accommodation in the area around Spring Road and Cauldwell Hall Road, and they would have had great difficulty accessing pension payments and all sorts of other services if the local Post Office had closed.
In response to a petition signed by hundreds of residents, I, and my fellow local Councillors, and Chris Mole our then MP, and senior people within the East of England Coop, got together and looked for an alternative. We put the evidence forward for keeping a Post Office at that location, and finally got the Post Office set up in the Coop Branch in Cauldwell Hall Road. I know there were several other branches across the town that Chris was also able to save, working with local Councillors, and I believe we now have a sensible network of Post Office branches across Ipswich.
Several of the local Post Offices in Suffolk are now set up within Coop stores, because the places where those stores are located tend to be most convenient for accessing Post Office services too. The East of England Coop doesn’t make a profit from Post Office Branches in its stores – they take the very sensible approach that, by making the space available, they contribute to the local community and make it more likely that the local community will want to shop in their local Coop.
So when the Coop tell me that the latest changes to the funding of Post Office branches puts their continuing existence at risk, I take that very seriously. I thought it was wrong to move the Post Office out of Tower Ramparts to Smiths in Westgate Street, but the closure of the smaller branches in residential parts of the town would arguably have even greater effect on the lives of Ipswich people.
The Post Office provides vital services for many people who are not able to do everything online. The Conservative Government gives lip-service to helping people who are not IT-savvy, but their actions show that they are just not prepared to make allowances. The core payments for local Post Office branches are being removed, so they will have to rely on selling their services. There are so many additional things Post Offices could do to help people, if only they were allowed to do so, but contrary to that, many of the services that Post Offices used to be able to provide, such as National Savings accounts and cash payments for Pensions, are now being taken away from them. Many older people are going to find it harder to manage independently at a time when the Government says it wants people to look after themselves for longer.
The weekly trip to the Post Office can be a vital way to keep in touch for vulnerable people on their own. Some people who currently use their local Post Office will end up needing advice from the Citizens Advice Bureau or the Council instead, if they close. The Post Office ought to be a public service, and the Government should be cherishing and supporting our Post Office network, not sucking it dry and then spitting it out. I am determined to do what I can, working with East of England Coop and others, to keep our Post Office network across Ipswich.