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.