Postal Recognition of Cheam

– in the House of Commons at 9:59 pm on 31st October 2006.

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

Photo of Paul Burstow Paul Burstow Shadow Chief Whip (Commons) 10:09 pm, 31st October 2006

I am grateful for the opportunity this evening to bring to the attention of the House an issue that has raised passions in my constituency. The issue has resulted in one of the biggest mailbags that I have received in my nine years as Member of Parliament for Sutton and Cheam.

The issue is about identity, a sense of place and a sense of history. I am talking about the village and old parish of Cheam, which is a place that the Royal Mail has wiped from the map in the name of efficiency and administrative convenience. Before I go into the details of the Royal Mail's bloody-mindedness, perhaps a little history will underline why so many of my constituents and I feel so strongly about Cheam.

Cheam first shows up in the records in the 6th century, and it has an interesting history. It was recorded in the Domesday Book as the property of the Archbishop of Canterbury, providing sustenance to monks. In the 16th century, Henry VIII built Nonsuch palace. In modern times, His Royal Highness Prince Phillip was educated in Cheam, which is also the fictional home of Tony Hancock.

To the east of Cheam is Sutton, which has a long history, too. It was only in the 1920s that those two villages in what has become outer London became enmeshed by suburban expansion and growth. Local government reorganisation first united the two villages in the district of Sutton and Cheam and then later in the London borough of Sutton. However, those administrative boundaries have not weakened my constituents' sense of place and their connection to where they live.

Whether it is Belmont, Cheam, Sutton, Stoneleigh or Worcester Park, people identify closely with where they live. If one lives in Cheam, one does not live in Sutton, but that is exactly what the Royal Mail is saying to Cheam residents and Cheam businesses. The Royal Mail insists that Cheam is part of Sutton, and it insists that people resident in Cheam have a Sutton address, rather than a Cheam one. That edict from the Royal Mail has enraged my constituents. For the past two years, I have been lobbying the Royal Mail on their behalf for a change of heart.

I hope that the Minister is beginning to appreciate that Cheam is a place with a strong sense of community and a strong sense of its own identity, and I hope that he can help my constituents realise their ambition of recognition by the Royal Mail tonight. There is a distinct and ancient boundary based on the Cheam parish and Cheam ward. Indeed, my proposed boundary, which I have put to the Royal Mail, has widespread support in the local community and has been approved by Postwatch and the local council.

Thousands of residents have taken part in the campaign to date. They have written to the Royal Mail protesting about the lack of recognition of Cheam, and they have signed a petition calling for Post Office recognition. The Sutton Guardian, the local paper, has given its backing to the campaign, launching its own "Proud to be Cheam" campaign. Last Christmas, many local residents supported the campaign by marking their post with labels reading, "Proud to be Cheam: Cheam is our Address", and hundreds more will do so again this winter. Even English Heritage has lent its support to my campaign. Its chief executive has described Cheam as a "distinctive centre" and expressed his regret at the actions of the Royal Mail.

Despite all that effort on the part of me and my constituents, the Royal Mail has refused to budge. It has held fast to its view that Cheam should labelled as an appendage to its larger neighbour, Sutton. Many Cheam residents have told me how much they resent the fact that the Post Office no longer recognises Cheam as a postal town, on the spurious grounds of operational efficiency. To make a comparison, how would the residents of Hampstead regard a decision by the Royal Mail to insist that they use Camden as their address and that Hampstead no longer exists? How would the residents of Wimbledon feel, if they were told that they live in Morden? I am sure that they would object. They would say, and rightly so, that Wimbledon and Morden are two very different and distinct places which deserve to be treated as such.

I have been engaged in a protracted correspondence with the Royal Mail trying to persuade it to change its mind and to respect local opinion. In a recent letter, the address development manager, Mr. Brian Davies, told me:

"Although I appreciate your desire to create a post town of Cheam, I am sorry that under our existing Code of Practice I am unable to do this."

And where is the address development manager based? Is he on hand to draw on his local knowledge of the area? No; he is based 170 miles away in Shrewsbury, which is a long way from Cheam. Perhaps that is for his own good, given how angry my constituents feel about this. Shrewsbury is an ancient town itself, but suppose that I, or some of the residents of Cheam, were to insist that its residents should begin to use Telford as their postal address? I am certain that they would not accept that.

What logic does the Royal Mail use to justify its stance? To quote Mr. Davies, it is all in the cause of "operational efficiency". I pointed out to him that there are 50 towns and villages in England with Sutton in their name. It is a fine name, and clearly lots of people have decided to use it over the centuries to describe where they live, but I believe that using it in this context creates plenty of potential for confusion. Why is the name of the town so critical to the Royal Mail? Surely it is the postcode that counts for operational reasons; after all, the Royal Mail has spent a fortune on encouraging us all to use the postcode.

I should like to recount the story of one of my constituents who was recently waiting for confirmation of an appointment at the local St. Helier hospital. She became concerned when she did not hear anything from the hospital. Then one day a letter arrived in the post from a lady in Luton with, curiously, the same street name and number as my constituent. In the envelope was a letter from St. Helier, clearly and correctly addressed to my constituent's Sutton home, and complete with a clear and correct postcode. I suppose that "Luton" does look a bit like "Sutton" at a glance, but the postcodes are quite different. When first receiving the letter, the Luton lady marked the envelope, "Not Luton", but two days later back it came to her.

The Royal Mail says that adding the word "Sutton" to the postal address in addition to Cheam reduces confusion. I beg to differ. As I said, there are many places in the UK with Sutton in their name, but there is only one place called Cheam. Indeed, research undertaken by my staff shows that there is only one other place on the planet with the same name: the village of Cha'am in Thailand. I would have to agree with Mr. Davies and his colleagues at Royal Mail that it would be most annoying to have to have one's post redirected from Thailand. However, I think that that may occur rather less often than having it sent to Sutton in Devon, in Bedfordshire, in Oxfordshire or in any one of the other Suttons in this country alone.

Perhaps if I recount a couple of pieces of Royal Mail logic, the Minister will understand why my constituents and I feel so strongly. The London borough of Sutton has several former villages, each with their own history and character, two of which are Carshalton and Wallington. Both have SM postcodes, but their own post town status. People who live in Wallington can give their address as Wallington without adding Sutton; likewise, those who live in Carshalton are able to use that as their address. When I challenged Mr. Davies of the Royal Mail about that, he was rather taken aback and sought some advice. Of course, being based 170 miles away with no local knowledge does not help someone to answer such awkward questions. He wrote to me thus:

"I promised to seek an answer to the question why both Carshalton and Wallington have post town status when deliveries to the area are from the office in Wallington. I have now received a response from the...Mail Centre Manager for the area, and although he does not know the history behind the areas having post town status the fact that Carshalton is SM5 and Wallington SM6 does assist with the sorting of mail. It was felt that at some point Carshalton and Wallington were individual delivery offices and this would explain why they were given SM5 and SM6 postcodes."

The answer seems to be that it is an historical anomaly, with the reasons long forgotten. Apparently the Royal Mail can, after all, be influenced by history, but only when it suits it. I fail to see how this historical anomaly can assist "operational efficiency".

I will cite a second piece of Royal Mail logic. Cheam has its high street, as do most towns, including Sutton. However, the Royal Mail has a plan to overcome the confusion between the two high streets. The people of High street, Cheam, are requested to use Cheam in their postal address, and only Cheam, without adding Sutton, thereby creating further confusion. So the Royal Mail can break its own code of practice when it suits it.

It is time Royal Mail took note of public opinion. The message coming loud and clear from my constituents is this: "We are proud to be Cheam; Cheam is our address. It is 'Cheam, Surrey, UK', not 'Sutton', not 'Cheam, Sutton' or anything else the people at Royal Mail might think necessary in their misguided quest for 'operational efficiency.'" I hope that the Minister might now appreciate the strength of feeling in my constituency and the strength of the case for Royal Mail to give recognition to Cheam as a postal town. I hope that he can use his good offices to prompt a rethink and a reversal of the Royal Mail's decision.

Photo of Jim Fitzpatrick Jim Fitzpatrick Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Employment Relations & Postal Services) 10:19 pm, 31st October 2006

I congratulate Mr. Burstow on securing the debate and on his campaign. In the short time available, I shall do my best to address his points. I should declare an interest in that when I joined London Fire Brigade in 1974, I did my basic training at Sutton fire station and served my operational time mostly in south-west London, so I have some familiarity with the geography of the area.

Let me give some background on the massive operation managed by Royal Mail. As we all appreciate, Royal Mail's operations extend into every home and business throughout the United Kingdom. Its operational success is dependent on the efficient use of postal addresses, and particularly of postcodes, to which the hon. Gentleman referred. About 84 million postal items are delivered every day, and almost 1 billion parcels every year. Every house and business in the United Kingdom has been given a postal address by the Royal Mail to meet its obligation to provide a universal postal service. There are 27.5 million addresses and 1.7 million postcodes—one for every 15 UK addresses.

Every delivery point in the United Kingdom has a postal address and customers are encouraged to use Royal Mail's recommended postal address system to avoid delays. Royal Mail specifies an optimum way of addressing post to help its operations. That involves a minimum amount of information required by the company for accurate sorting and delivery. It consists of the addressee's name, the number of the house or its name, the post town and the postcode. The postcode enables small numbers of adjacent properties, and sometimes a single property, to be identified.

A postcode is used as a sorting and routing instruction, and its sole purpose in the postal context is to help to identify the most efficient route for delivering mail to individual customers. Although you and I, Mr. Deputy Speaker, may use it in a variety of other ways, the fact is that the postcode is all about getting post from A to B. That is what it was designed for in the first place, and that is what it is for. As a result, Royal Mail can report that, last year, over 94.1 per cent. of first-class mail was delivered the next day, against a target agreed with Postcomm of 93 per cent., and that 95.4 per cent. of first-class post was delivered the next day to the residents of Sutton and Cheam. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman would want to join me in congratulating Royal Mail staff on their results.

The allocation of a postcode to each district and address is linked to Royal Mail's network of sorting and delivery offices—its distribution network. Because the delivery office covering Cheam is based in Sutton, Sutton is the post town that sets local postcodes, including those covering Cheam. Sutton has always been the post town in that area, and has always been the basis of local postcodes. However, postcodes were never intended to signify a geographically definitive address by local authority or other administrative boundary. Indeed, postcodes are not a geographically accurate description of where a property is located. A postcode may, as in many cases, relate to a town where the delivery office is situated, which may be several miles away or even in a different county. The post town may even be in a different country, depending on the location of its borders.

The UK postcode system was developed by Royal Mail in the 1960s to sort mail more efficiently and to cope with population growth and increasing mail volumes. Efficiency is achieved by using the one-line postcode as a shortcut for the full postal address. Mail with a postcode can be sorted more quickly, accurately and efficiently. The alphanumeric combination used in the UK postcode structure has proved robust, resilient and easy for mail users and the public to remember.

Photo of Paul Burstow Paul Burstow Shadow Chief Whip (Commons)

The Minister is setting out clearly the benefits of the postcode. In doing so, however, perhaps he will reflect on my observation, from my correspondence with Royal Mail, that there are two postal towns, Wallington and Carshalton, delivered to from a post office sorting office in Wallington. If that is the case for them, why cannot it be the case for Cheam?

Photo of Jim Fitzpatrick Jim Fitzpatrick Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Employment Relations & Postal Services)

The hon. Gentleman has a point—there does seem to be a minor anomaly. Wallington is a postal town because a delivery office is sited there. Apparently, there was one in Carshalton, and that is why the anomaly exists. He has a fair point in that regard but, on the point that I was making, Sutton is the post town, and that is why Sutton must be on the address.

Mail with a postcode can be sorted more quickly, accurately and efficiently. Royal Mail continues to develop and maintain high standards of postcode compliance. That has a direct influence on its mail-processing efficiency, its automated sorting systems, address interpretation and optical character recognition machinery function, because addresses are matched against the postcode address file, or PAF. The routes taken by postmen and women across the country were based on the PAF. The Royal Mail's PAF includes other information relevant to a postal address, such as the names of businesses. It is continually updated to reflect changes in postal address information, such as new housing developments, the renumbering of buildings and the renaming of roads. Royal Mail will consider customers' requests for changes to postal addresses.

In December 2001, Postcomm, the industry regulator, issued a consultation document in which views were sought on a code of practice to govern changes to Royal Mail's postcode address file—in effect, to its postcodes and postal addresses. The code of practice was published in March 2002, and it was reviewed a year later. In March 2004, Postcomm published its review, in which the code of practice was further amended to take account of, among other things, a fast-track system of change. That is the current code of practice. A further review of the code of practice will take place in 2008.

Under the code of practice, changes to the PAF can be made for one of two reasons: to maintain or improve the service offered by Royal Mail, and/or to reflect customer demand. In the first case, Royal Mail can review the way in which it routes its mail to provide a better service. That may be needed as a result of the siting of a new delivery office, the building of a new housing or business development, the renumbering of buildings or the renaming of roads by local authorities. In such cases, Royal Mail reviews existing postcodes and addresses to maintain efficient handling and delivery.

Under the code of practice, Royal Mail will also consider customer requests for changes to postal addresses. Locality information can be changed if the request is widely supported by customer representatives such as Postwatch, local authorities, parish or district councils and Members of Parliament. An acceptable and clearly defined set of geographical boundary data must be available, and there should not be a significant amount of objection from those affected by the proposed change of address. It is, of course, down to the individual initiating a request to provide the data and obtain the necessary support, as is set out in the code of practice. In such cases, Royal Mail will write to people at all the affected addresses, advising them of the proposed change, and giving the customers who are likely to be affected the opportunity to register concerns or objections. If fewer than 20 per cent. of those affected by the requested change register objections, changes can be made to the PAF with immediate effect under the fast-track system introduced to the code in 2004.

Photo of Paul Burstow Paul Burstow Shadow Chief Whip (Commons)

I point out to the Minister that we cannot begin the fast-track process because the Post Office will not even countenance consulting its customers on the idea of simply including "Cheam" and the postcode on the address.

Photo of Jim Fitzpatrick Jim Fitzpatrick Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Employment Relations & Postal Services)

I hear what the hon. Gentleman says. I am happy to give way to him because this is his Adjournment debate, but obviously I may not be able to respond to all his points. If I do not, I shall write to him.

From the briefings that I received in preparation for this evening's debate, it seems to me that the first step, and the obvious way forward, is to secure the appropriate consultation on adding "Cheam" to the postal address. That would at least half meet the hon. Gentleman's aspirations, because then Cheam could be added to the acknowledged postal address—that is, the address recognised by Royal Mail for residents in his area. If they wish to drop Sutton from their address—I am not suggesting for a second that they ought to do so, because that may result in a delay in delivery—and include Cheam, there is a mechanism to achieve that, provided that the hon. Gentleman can demonstrate his support, as well as that of Postwatch, the local council and the chamber of commerce. Given the support that he has demonstrated in his local area, that would be a positive first step in the recognition of Cheam as a distinct postal area in Royal Mail's acknowledged address systems. I am happy to discuss that informally with him after our debate.

If 20 per cent. of people affected by the change raise objections, Royal Mail carries out a poll of all affected households. It is a requirement that 50 per cent. of those households reply for a simple majority in favour to secure the proposed change. Royal Mail aims to conclude such polls and implement any address changes within two months of the ballot being initiated, and it is not averse to making changes to its postal address file. In fact, few requests are turned down for operational reasons. In most cases in which the proposed changes do not progress, the individual requesting the change has chosen not to progress it. Until the end of 2005, of the 154 locality requests received by Royal Mail, 50 related to single postcodes, which were changed after 100 per cent. agreement by residents; 20 covered multi-postcodes that were changed after full consultation; in the remaining cases, Royal Mail offered a change, depending on the necessary support from local representatives and the outcome of the consultation.

I understand that Royal Mail has agreed to consult on the inclusion of Cheam in the locality information in the postal address, but it will not consider removing Sutton as the post town from the postal address. Changes to post towns obviously affect a large number of addresses and have widespread implications not only for Royal Mail delivery operations but for many householders and businesses. A post town acts as a clearing point for a particular district: it is the basic unit of the postal delivery system and is the place where the delivery office is situated. Cheam has never been a post town. Sutton is, and always has been, the post town. It is where the local delivery office is situated, so it is the post town according to Royal Mail's system of operations. That does not mean that Royal Mail does not recognise Cheam's existence—clearly it does so—and it does not take anything away from Cheam's history or the splendid heritage outlined by the hon. Gentleman. It simply means that it is not a post town as recognised by Royal Mail operations. Royal Mail will consider requests for changes to post towns only if an area is recoded to meet an operational need, as clearly elaborated in the agreed code of practice.

The postcode forms the basis of Royal Mail's distribution network. Any change to postcodes, which are based on post towns, could compromise Royal Mail operations, resulting in poorer service to customers. Royal Mail will consider making changes to the last two characters of a postcode in exceptional circumstances, but its primary concern is to ensure that it can deliver mail efficiently to its customers. It will not, therefore, consider making changes to postal addresses that materially impact on the efficiency of its operations. All of that, as the hon. Gentleman knows, is set out in the code of practice agreed with Postwatch and Postcomm.

The code of practice provides for consultation on any changes to postcodes, as I have outlined. In conclusion, Postcomm—the regulator—and Postwatch—the consumer council—have responsibility for overseeing Royal Mail services. If anyone is concerned about the way in which a request for a change to their postal address has been handled under the code, they should initially pursue clarification with Royal Mail. If they remain unsatisfied, they can pursue the matter with Postwatch, the consumer watchdog, which will consider the case against the code and consult Postcomm if it believes that the code has not been adhered to.

Royal Mail will consider changes to locality information and, as I have explained, it is willing to do so in relation to Cheam. It does not, however, consider requests for changes to post towns unless an area is recoded to meet an operational need. That is in addition to criteria that must be met before additional locality information can be included in a postal address. Overall, we believe that the code of practice governing changes to postal addresses works. Most importantly, we believe that Royal Mail's postcode system works and is fit for purpose. Postcodes do the job for which they were designed—that is, getting post from A to B.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-six minutes to Eleven o'clock.