HC Deb 05 July 1963 vol 680 cc823-34

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Finlay.]

4.0 p.m.

Mr. James Dance (Bromsgrove)

I am grateful to have this opportunity of raising the question of the proposed closure of the sub-post office at Rednal, in my constituency. It might be helpful to hon. Members if I briefly go into the past history of this case.

Towards the end of April of this year it was announced that the sub-post office at Rednal was to be closed. I understand that this was due to the fact that Mr. Peter Mead, the present postmaster, decided that due to the growth of his business and because he held a similar post on the adjacent Rednal housing estate, he was unable or unwilling to continue running the sub-post office in a cottage in the Lickey Road.

I received a number of letters from my constituents protesting at the proposed closure and I intend to give some of their reasons. They also sent a petition to my right hon. Friend containing more than 300 signatures. I immediately tabled a Question and asked the Postmaster-General: …if he will make a statement about the future of the post office at Rednal, near Birmingham. This was answered by my hon. Friend the Assistant Postmaster-General, who said: We propose to take advantage of the sub-postmaster's resignation to replace the Rednal Post Office by one in Parsonage Drive, Crofton Hackett. With this change, I think the disposition of sub-offices in the area will be more convenient for the majority of the local residents. I put a supplementary question and asked: I know that my hon. Friend is aware that a Petition has been produced with 300 signatories from Rednal on this question. Is he aware that this office is near a bus stop, that there are a large number of old-age pensioners living in this part of the world who have to go to the office to collect their old-age pensions and that this decision will cause great hardship? Will he please reconsider the question? to which I received the following reply: I am always prepared to reconsider anything, but it is important to remember that the original office is in an old cottage which is not part of a recognised shopping centre, whereas die new office will serve an estate of about 300 houses with four shops and a large cafe. On the surface it looks as though the move may be more convenient for the majority of local residents, but I will look again at the matter affecting my hon. Friend's constituency."—[Official Report, 14th May, 1963; Vol. 677, c. 1116–17.] My hon. Friend has, to a certain extent, been wrongly informed on two counts. The first is that the location of the present post office has a shopping centre larger than the one in Parsonage Drive. In this area there are eight shops, one hotel, two cafes, one social club, one youth training centre, one golf club and two amusement arcades. It may be convenient—and I have with me the names of the people running these establishments, but I will not weary the House by relating them—if I say what these shops comprise. If my hon. Friend would like the other information I have I will give it to him later. There is the Hare and Hounds public house, a sweet shop, a blacksmith's, a newsagent and sweet shop, a grocer, a shoe repairer's, a wool shop, a garage, a hairdresser's and a grocer and greengrocer.

The second point on which my hon. Friend has been wrongly informed concerns a letter dated 29th May which he wrote to me saying: There is a frequent bus service from Rednal to the end of Edgwood Road, which is within 400 yards of the Edgwood Road sub-post office, and old-age pensioners enjoy free travel facilities on the Birmingham Corporation buses. This is an inaccuracy, because my constituents do not enjoy these bus facilities, as they do not pay rates to Birmingham, but live in Worcestershire and pay rates to the Bromsgrove Rural District Council. This does not entitle them to these free travel facilities.

I believe that the general trend at present is that inhabitants in new housing estates are usually young people with young families, whilst those living in the older property tend to be older people. That is exactly the case here. In the estate where the post office that my constituents will have to use is situated, the residents, generally speaking, are younger people, who are very likely much better off, and may even own motor cars, whereas the inhabitants of the existing area are older, and there are many old-age pensioners among them. I therefore feel that great hardship would be caused were they to lose their post office.

I have received many letters on this subject, but I shall quote from only a few of them. The first is a rather long quotation but it really crystallises the whole case. It reads: As I said in my letter to you they were shocked to hear it is to be closed and are also very worried. Some of them are very old, the oldest nearly 93 years, others 84 and many others are pensioners. They like their independence and if the post office is moved I am afraid they would lose that little bit of independence by having to ask other people to fetch their pensions for them. The post office in Parsonage Drive is a long walk and to get back to Rednal a very steep bank to climb. Some of them would never manage the walk—and the bad weather,"What will they do then? We could not expect them to go that long walk. I am a pensioner and live in the village and am thankful to say quite healthy, but even to me the walk to Parsonage Drive and back is hard going, so it would be two or three times further for folks who live away from the village. Admitted our post office is in an old cottage, but it has always served its purpose very well. Another of my correspondents writes: This will cause great hardship to many old-age pensioners as well as inconvenience to those who get off the bus and call at the post office. I have an invalid mother and two aged aunts, and am frequently at the post office. I am appalled to think of the distance I shall have to walk in future. Another constituent says: The Midland Red only run every hour from here, which means one hour's wait with no seat and no shelter, and the journey is much too far for many of us to walk. The bus takes at least a quarter of an hour, whichever P.O. we can go to. I am 73 and I can assure you that this means great trouble and expense to me. It may seem a strange coincidence, but there are seven people who live in this neighbourhood who do magnificent work in copying into Braille articles from various publications for the benefit of the blind. The resulting packages are much too large to go into an ordinary post box and have to be posted at the nearest post office. To lose the facilities of a post office seems poor thanks for these benevolent people. One lady, who does this work for the National Deaf and Blind Helpers' League, is in her 87th year.

In the Army, I was told that time spent on reconnaissance is not wasted, and I think that this applies in civilian cases, too. Although I know this area very well, I took the trouble to make a reconnaissance myself to look at the two alternative post offices. To get to one, one has to climb a very steep hill—and it is steep—and go about a mile. On the other hand, to get to the other post office that would be available means crossing an extremely dangerous and busy road, with a lot of fast-moving traffic on it, and then either crossing a piece of parkland—which, in winter, is ankle-deep in mud—or going a very long way round. I have seen for myself how very inconvenient the closing of this post office would be.

Rednal has had this post office for over 100 years, and it is, therefore, not surprising that there is bitter resentment among its inhabitants about this proposed closure. I therefore hope that when my right hon. Friend considers all the arguments I have put forward on behalf of my constituents—arguments that they have putto me—he will change his mind and allow this post office to remain open. Incidentally, I am informed that there is a person who is quite prepared to run this post office in the future in conjection with his own shop. Therefore it should create no great problems.

If my hon. Friend can agree, I can assure him that he will earn the respect and gratitude of all these first-class public-minded citizens of Worcestershire.

4.10 p.m.

The Assistant Postmaster-General (Mr. Ray Mawby)

I much appreciate the fair and reasonable way that my hon. Friend the Member for Bromsgrove (Mr. Dance) has put his case both today and in all our contacts in the course of his pursuit of this matter. I am also glad to have the opportunity of explaining more fully to my hon. Friend the background to our proposals, as these quite evidently are troubling a number of his constituents.

I am sorry that this should be so. As I am sure my hon. Friend will appreciate, there is a limit to the number of sub-post offices which we can provide. We already have about 23,000. It is most important, therefore, that we should take advantage of any opportunity that may occur to make sure that each office is placed where it will be of greatest benefit to our customers. When, therefore, an office becomes vacant, either through the resignation of the sub-postmaster or through any other cause, it is our normal practice to review critically the disposition of the sub-post offices in the area before appointing a new sub-postmaster.

Some of our older sub-post offices were established years ago and they tend, with the passing of time, to become less well situated to meet people's needs than they were. As building takes place around them, centres of population shift and the offices are no longer the focal points they were. It is important, therefore, that we should make these reviews and thus keep our arrangements as far as we can in step with developments. It is by no means infrequently that we find a move to a fresh site, even though it may not be a great distance away, provides a more equitable distribution of our counter services in present day circumstances.

In this case the Postmaster of the Rednal sub-post office told us a little time ago that he wished to give up his office as soon as possible. The Rednal sub-office was opened about forty years ago and since then there have been many changes in the neighbourhood. I think it is true to say that the office provided a better centre for such post office counter business as there was in those early days than it does now.

There has been considerable building development to the north of the office, and to meet the needs of people living in this highly developed area we had to open a new sub-office in Edgewood Road, some two years ago. This office is considerably less than one mile away from the Rednal Office and inevitably it has taken away some of the business which used to be done there. I believe it is true that even now some people who go to the Rednal sub-office could just as conveniently, if not more conveniently, use the office in Edgewood Road.

There has been other fairly extensive building development in the area but this also has tended to take place away from the Rednal office—to the south and the west—rather than in its immediate vicinity. It was in the light of these changes that it was decided after careful and anxious consideration that it would be right and in the interests of the majority of residents in the area to seek a fresh site in the Parsonage Drive district when the sub-postmaster of the Rednal sub-office told us that he wished to give up his office.

It is true, as my hon. Friend has said, that the opening of the office in Parsonage Drive and the closing of the Rednal office will mean that some people will have further to go than they have now to do their post office business. I am afraid that this is inevitable. We cannot move any office any significant distance, however desirable the case may be, without adversely affecting somebody.

Of course, I am seized of the point which my hon. Friend makes—it is important—that older estates tend to have a larger concentration of elderly people whereas newer estates tend to have more younger people. Nevertheless, it is important to remember that young married people, particularly young mothers, find it difficult at times to push a pram any considerable distance. There is, therefore, something to be said on both sides.

Mr. Dance

I know some of these post offices, and I have been in them. I tell my hon. Friend frankly that the amount of business being done is so great that the delays are sometimes quite considerable. Is there not room for a third one there? There is the new, growing estate and, as I said, quite a lot of trade is going on there. In view of the increased trade, why not a third Post Office?

Mr. Mawby

This, of course, is always a problem which we have to consider seriously. Is development such, or is it likely to be such in the near future, that one can take on another office? Several factors have to be taken into account. First, there is the amount of remuneration which each sub-postmaster can expect to receive. His remuneration is based upon the amount of business which he does in his particular office. If we open another office, there will obviously be an effect upon all the other offices in the area.

Secondly, our system of payment of remuneration is such that we get more service for less money in a number of large offices than we should with a larger number of smaller offices. Therefore, there is the economic side of it from the Post Office's point of view. Moreover, one must take into account the effect upon established sub-postmasters who, in many instances, have involved themselves in considerable expense in trying to provide a service for their customers, if, without careful thought, the Post Office takes a course of action resulting in their remuneration being considerably reduced.

I hope that I have given some idea of the many considerations which must be borne in mind in deciding whether to move an office to a place which seems to be nearer to the new centre of population or to keep the existing office and open an additional one. These matters have most carefully to be examined. I hope that my hon. Friend realises that the point he makes has been anxiously considered.

Mr. W. R. Williams (Manchester, Openshaw)

The hon. Gentleman is making an important point about the legitimate aspirations of other sub-postmasters. I understand from him that the old office in Rednal has been there for 40 years.

Mr. Dance

One hundred years.

Mr. Williams

According to the official information, it has been there for 40 years. Apparently, it was in situwhen the other two new offices were established. Therefore, it must have been realised at the time when the two new offices were instituted that the old office was, as it were, a reserved place for the Rednal sub-postmaster. It is only inci- dental that he has retired from the business, is it not?

Mr. Mawby

It is the fact that this question has arisen because of the wish of the sub-postmaster no longer to continue at this particular office. Presumably, this is because he is at present trying to operate two sub-post offices, one being the one we are talking of, the other being a new one. He may well have found that the business taken away by the new office has reduced his remuneration in this particular office, and it may well have proved too big a burden for him to continue to maintain two offices. However that may be, this was the situation in which we were placed by the sub-postmaster asking to be relieved of this post. In those circumstances, it is obvious that one had to have a look at the situation and ask whether circumstances had changed so much that it would have been in the interests of our customers to move this post office this short distance to bring it more into the centre of a modern developed area. These are the points we have had to consider.

These new arrangements will mean that many people in the area, including retirement pensioners and residents on the estate near Parsonage Drive, will be nearer to a post office than they are now. I am assured that those who will benefit in this way outnumber those who will have further to go to reach a post office. For those who will have further to go and who do not wish to walk the extra distance there are bus services to Edgewood Road and Parsonage Drive.

I take my hon. Friend's point that in making these journeys his constituents will not be able to take advantage of the free travel facilities which the Birmingham Corporation provides for pensioners on its buses as this is just outside the area in which these facilities operate. But if these people, or, for that matter, any other retirement pensioners, do not wish to make the journey to a post office to collect their pension they can arrange for a friend or a relative to collect it for them.

I also take my hon. Friend's point—it is an important one—that elderly people feel a great sense of pride. This is a matter on which we do not make decisions without giving careful thought to it because it is obvious that elderly people wish to continue to go to the post office to draw their own retirement pensions. But, as I say, there are arrangements to deal with the situation and a number of retirement pensioners have taken advantage of the opportunity to have someone else collect their pension for them.

It is true, as my hon. Friend pointed out to me, that people going from the Barnt Green Road and Lickey Coppice areas to the new office in Parsonage Drive will have to negotiate the hills in Grovelly Lane or Ten Ashes Lane. On the other hand, people who live towards the west end of Grovelly Lane and who at present have to negotiate the hills in this road to reach the Rednal post office will be saved this trouble. There are the bus services which I have mentioned to Edgewood Road and Parsonage Drive which people who wish to avoid walking up and down the hills in question can use.

My hon. Friend has sent on to me protests from three or four people—and this afternoon he has quoted some more—who do not wish to see a change, and I have received the petition signed by about 300 people which I have considered very carefully. I am afraid that I cannot say that we have had compensating compliments or congratulations from those who will benefit from the change. But, when changes are made, it is not unknown for those who like them to be much less vocal than those who dislike them, and this case is no exception.

There have been differences between my hon. Friend and myself about the character of the shopping facilities in the vicinity of the Rednal sub-office and in the Parsonage Drive district, and he enumerated them again this afternoon. But I assure him that I fully accept his point that there are a number of shops in the vicinity of the Rednal office. There are, of course, shops in the Parsonage Drive area, too.

But the main question which we have to consider is whether or not the move of the sub-office to Parsonage Drive will improve the distribution of post office counter facilities in the area generally. I think, after very careful consideration, that the answer to this question must be"Yes" and that more people, including retirement pensioners, will benefit than will be adversely affected by the move of the office. That is why we feel that it would be right to make the change to which my hon. Friend has drawn attention.

Some people may feel that we should leave the sub-office in Rednal and provide a new one in Parsonage Drive as well. This is the view which my hon. Friend takes. We have considered this possibility, and I am afraid that I could not possibly justify the expense of doing this. We have to bear in mind that new sub-post offices do not increase the total amount of our business but simply divert business from existing offices. They do not, therefore, bring in any extra revenue, but they increase our costs.

Mr. Dance

Surely, my hon. Friend must agree that a new housing estate with new houses creates more trade. I am not asking for three post offices for the same number of people. All these new housing estates are bringing in more people, so surely there should be more facilities.

Mr. Mawby

Up to a point, I agree with my hon. Friend. We must, however, accept generally that people who move to a new estate are taking their business from a post office that they have bean accustomed to using, so that in many cases new business is not being attracted but business is merely being transferred from one point to another. Obviously, this is why we have always to consider whether the present siting of an office is the right one to give the best service to the majority of customers and also whether an office is adequate to give a full service to the number of people who will be using it at any one time.

As I have said, our expenses would be increased without an equivalent increase in revenue from extra business. This is because our overhead costs rise with the number of offices and also because a sub-postmaster receives a certain minimum scale of pay however little business is transacted at his office. This means that we pay more money for the same amount of business if it is done at a number of small offices rather than at fewer larger offices.

Everybody would like to have a post office near to his home and, as I have said, we do our best to place our offices so that they are convenient to as many people as possible. We must, however, pay regard to economy and try to hold a balance between the needs of the public and what we can reasonably spend on providing post offices. We have found that we can best hold the balance by placing our offices in districts like Rednal not less than a mile apart. A new office in Parsonage Drive would be well under a mile from Rednal and I am sorry that we simply could not justify having the two offices.

As I said at the outset, I am grateful to my hon. Friend for the courteous way in which he has dealt with the problem throughout. I am extremely sorry that I cannot give him satisfaction. This is a matter to which we have given serious consideration. I believe that we have taken the right action and that in time my hon. Friend's constituents will realise that in taking these steps, we have practised reasonable economy but are also providing a new situation in which there will be better service for a larger number of people in the area.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-eight minutes past Four o'clock.