Twenty post offices closing every year

FEARS are growing over the future of the post office network after new figures revealed branches are shutting at a rate of 20 per year in Suffolk and north Essex.

FEARS are growing over the future of the post office network after new figures revealed branches are shutting at a rate of 20 per year in Suffolk and north Essex.

With the Government subsidy to rural post offices due to end in 2008 and the card account expected to be shelved in 2010, community leaders have warned D-Day may be approaching for many of East Anglia's rural branches.

It has prompted Suffolk County Council to write to the Government alerting it to their concerns and urging a rethink of the planned withdrawal of the card account, which allows people to collect their benefits and pensions over the counter.

The statistics, from the House of Commons library, show 63 post offices have closed in Suffolk and 57 in north Essex since 1999, with the greatest number permanently shutting their doors in the Central Suffolk and North Ipswich constituency.

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But the National Federation of Sub Postmasters (NFSP) said the numbers would rise, particularly if the subsidy is not renewed.

Neil Wolton, Colchester and Chelmsford secretary of the NFSP, said eight branches had closed in the last 18 months in Colchester alone.

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“Most of us are struggling. We feel there's going to be some more closures as there keeps being more and more business taken away from us,” he said.

Beryl Keats, Ipswich and district secretary, said: “It is absolutely diabolical. It is like someone up there has decided not to have post offices anymore. How much more business do post offices have to lose before they are shut down.”

Suffolk County Council Liberal Democrat and Independent group leader Kathy Pollard proposed a four-part motion about the future of the rural post office network at the county council's annual general meeting, which was unanimously endorsed.

The council will now write to the minister responsible for post offices to register its concerns and seek assurances that there will be the “fullest consultation” before any critical decisions are made. It will also argue that the decision to run the pilot withdrawal of the card account is “flawed” if there is no alternative in place within the post office service to enable money transactions.

Mrs Pollard said: “The Post Office account card is currently used by four million people nationally, many of whom are pensioners.

“This card provides vital revenue for threatened post offices. Without this card, and the current subsidy for rural areas, many local post offices will close, depriving communities of an essential service.”

She said the most worrying situation was that faced by smaller rural post offices that are not making any money. In the absence of a subsidy, post offices would need increased business from national and local government as well as public sector bodies, she said.

“A lot of post offices are a lifeline to local communities and unless support continues then that lifeline will be lost and it will make village life all the poorer because of that.”

Peter Martin, deputy leader of Essex County Council, added: “It is a difficult situation and it if of great concern to us. We will do whatever we can and we are taking it up with the Post Office and with the federation.”

A spokesman for Post Office Limited said: “Ten years ago the vast majority of what was done by post offices came through the Government. By 2010 it could be a tiny fraction.”

A spokesperson for the Department of Trade and Industry said: “Latest data indicates that on average fewer than 20 people a week use the 800 smallest rural post offices at a loss of £15 per visit.

“We want to see a Post Office network that meets the needs of today and the future and not those of 20 or 30 years ago. The DTI are discussing with other Government departments and Post Office Ltd how we can best achieve this.”

The DWP added there was no reason to believe that the 2010 card account expiry would automatically lead to closures as there would be a number of alternative accounts on offer.

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