I should like to speak for a few minutes on a subject that I know is close to the hearts of many hon. Members. We are all suffering, or have suffered, or will suffer, from post office closures in our constituencies. We in Solihull are lucky—if that is the right word—because only three post offices are earmarked for closure. However, having lost several important post offices in the cull that we experienced a few years ago, each one that we have left plays a vital role.
Our story in Solihull is also being played out across the country, and the questions that it raises are pertinent to every Member's constituency. Mr. Walter mentioned the criteria that can be used to try to obtain a reversal of a decision to close a post office. Three criteria of which I am aware are: unforeseen planning proposals that might increase unpredicted footfall; the difficulty of reaching other, more distant, post offices; and the deprivation that would be suffered as a result of the closure.
By extraordinary coincidence, one of those three criteria pertains to each proposed closure in Solihull. In Haslucks Green road, in Shirley, a superstore and shopping development is planned, despite the fact that we already have six supermarkets in Shirley high street. I have fought bitterly against the Asda superstore, but our failure to prevent this unwanted development has turned out to have a silver lining. Haslucks Green post office is just a few hundred yards away from it, and it will be besieged, not least by people who cannot even get to the superstore because of the traffic congestion that will be created.
Distance is another criterion that can be used. The Post Office, having encouraged the owner of the post office in Catherine de Barnes to grow his business, is now suggesting that it should be closed. I cannot match some of the ridiculous examples given by other hon. Members about people being unable to get a bus back home from the post office the same day, but Catherine de Barnes is a small village, and the bus to Solihull only comes about every 70 minutes, if we are lucky. The idea of going anywhere other than Solihull by bus is really not feasible. The post office is the only shop in the village, but it has a unique advantage in that it has a combi-counter which offers post office services seven days a week, up to 9 o'clock at night. People come from miles around to use it.
Deprivation is the third criterion. In Olton Hollow, there is more sheltered housing and, arguably, more elderly people than anywhere else in the borough. Olton Hollow, as the name suggests, is in a hollow, so anyone wanting to reach another post office would have a physical and metaphorical steep hill to climb.
Citizens Advice carried out an online survey, and it might help the House if I were to quote some of its findings. Citizens Advice feels that six weeks is too short a time for the proper consultation of vulnerable people. More than 90 per cent. of those who completed its online survey said that they would be personally affected if their local post office were to close, while 75 per cent. said that they would be significantly affected. In addition, 75 per cent. of respondents to the survey said that they could get to a local post office on foot, but only 14 per cent. would still be able to do so if the local office closed. For people on benefits, of course, there would be an additional cost if they could no longer reach their office on foot. The survey found that half of the over-65s and nearly half of those on means-tested benefits visited post offices several times a week. Despite what the Government may say, more than 60 per cent. of the over-75s still use the post office to pay many household bills.
In Solihull, just as elsewhere, other criteria apply that are not being given proper consideration. For example, what happens if the nearest alternative is already too busy, with elderly people waiting in queues for long periods of time? We were not allowed to run a petition inside the post office in Shirley as the shop is owned by the Co-op, so the owners of 35 local shops agreed to take it instead. Many of them said, "For goodness sake, please don't let them close the post office at Haslucks Green, because we don't want to have to wait 45 minutes at the one here." They said that even though the post office in Shirley was physically nearer for them.
What about parking? If it is a nightmare to park near the nearest post office, what will that mean for people forced to use transport to reach their post office? What about the effect of a post office closure on the surrounding local economy? In Olton Hollow, for example, the closure of the post office will affect the footfall in the local parade of shops.
When I raised these questions with the relevant Minister this morning, he blamed the decrease in post office business on changes in technology such as the internet. Of course, some patterns of business do change, but many services, such as the provision of TV licences, have been withdrawn from post offices. Moreover, different criteria now apply for online payments such as for car tax. Following the withdrawal of Post Office books, there has been the reluctant introduction of the Post Office card account. Although that account is difficult to apply for, it remains phenomenally successful, but the Post Office now faces the indignity of having to tender for its own post office card accounts services.
When services are withdrawn, and when people find it more difficult to get to their post offices and queues are longer, that means that the Government are making the post office network unsustainable. In the midlands, there are 160 proposed closures, and only four decisions have been reversed. I am concerned that there is some sort of conspiracy. Our communities are putting themselves through the pain of fighting to save their precious post offices, but it seems to be a done deal already. I have tabled an early-day motion stating that the word "consultation" must mean just that, and that the result must not be a foregone conclusion.
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