Axe falls on post offices

Thursday 18th October 2007 10:00 pm
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IT was black Tuesday for rural post offices in villages around Petersfield this week when the threat of closure became a stark reality. Protesters claim the closures would mean long journeys to Petersfield or Alton, and people without their own transport would be cut off from vital services such as pension collection, car licensing, banking and bill paying. Villagers are also worried that without the income from the post offices, the village stores with which they currently share a home would also be under threat. After months of uncertainty the axe fell finally on the Clare Gardens post office branch on the edge of Petersfield, in Durford Road. It has also fallen on Froxford, East Meon, West Meon and East Tisted post offices. The Clare Gardens branch is scheduled for total closure while East Meon, Froxfield, West Meon and East Tisted are proposed to be replaced with what Post Office Ltd describe as "outreach solutions". This would be a mobile service visiting villages at set times, a "hosted service" in another premises for restricted hours each week, or a "partner service" in a premises such as a village pub. Post Office Ltd has opened a six-week public consultation on its dramatic proposals to cut 71 post offices in the Hampshire and Isle of Wight area. But just 24 hours after the announcement, feelings were already running high around Petersfield. At Clare Gardens, Joe Patel, who has run the post office in Heathside stores for 17 years, said: "This is very bad news for all our customers and for us. This is a densely populated area on the outskirts of Petersfield and Clare Gardens post office is heavily used. "It means people will have to go to the main post office in the centre of Petersfield where there are already long queues out of the door on many occasions and these new post office closures will only make matters worse." He said he feared for the future of Heathside Stores if the post office business was lost. Post Office Ltd said it aimed for people in rural areas to be within three miles of their nearest post office, but villagers in Froxfield and Privett will now have to travel at least eight miles. Marilyn Wilkinson, postmistress at Froxfield Stores, was away when the closure news broke this week, but the relief postal worker said: "We have already lost Privett post office, and the closure of East Tisted and Froxfield means that all the services along the top of the hill are gone and there will be long journeys to Alton or Petersfield for all the villagers around here, and then they will have to stand in long queues." The relief worker added: "At the end of the day closing the post office could possibly also mean the closure of the shop as the Post Office will take away the remuneration." Janice Butcher, chairman of Froxfield Parish Council, said villagers had been "horrified" to hear of the proposed closure earlier this week. "The Post Office's so-called 'forward strategy' seems a very backward strategy to us. Privett has already suffered the loss of a post office and shop just over two years ago and now faces the closure of all such facilities in nearby local villages. "The value to scattered local rural communities of such village post offices, not only for the services they provide but also as a focal point for residents, has clearly not been recognised. Also, the closure often means that a shop can't remain as a viable business without the additional post office income." She said the cost and inconvenience of the closure to village businesses, as increasing numbers worked from home or in small rural units, would also be greatly felt. "This government is supposed to be looking for ways to reduce the numbers of vehicle journeys on the road to help reduce environmental pollution, but this strategy will greatly increase car travel from these areas as it will be necessary to travel to either Petersfield or Alton," she added. Froxfield post office, she said, was used not only by people from Froxfield and Privett, but also by some residents from Steep. East Meon district councillor David Parkinson said he had already met parish councillors and a "vigourous" protest campaign was being put into place. "We believe the Post Office is out of kilter with the community of East Meon, which has a high proportion of subsided housing," he said, "and the post office closure would mean a nine-mile round trip to Petersfield. It would have a significant effect on the village." East Hampshire MP Michael Mates said: "I am appalled that the government is so determined to close yet more post offices. This is another blow for rural communities in particular, who have lost so many of their essential services. "Without the business the post office brings, many village shops will struggle to survive – and I fear some will close." Tim Nickolls, Post Office Ltd's network development manager for Hampshire and the Isle of Wight, said: "Taking the decision to close any post office branch is always difficult and we know this will cause concern to many of our customers. "We want to ensure that everyone who uses, relies on, or has any concern with post office services is both fully aware of the proposed changes and able to give views on them. "Post Office Ltd's aim is to continue to provide essential services and support retail businesses and the local economy in as many communities as possible, subject to the minimum access criteria set by the government." He said he believed the current proposal offered the best prospect for a "sustainable" way forward, adding that 90.6 per cent of the area's population would see no change at all, a further 8.9 per cent lived less than one mile by road from the nearest alternative branch, and 2.6 per cent lived within half a mile.