Campaigner for rural communities gives guarded welcome to pledge not to close post offices for five years

PUBLISHED: 14:00 01 February 2014

Local MP Peter Aldous officially opens the new post office with store manager Raj on Rigbourne Hill, Beccles.

Local MP Peter Aldous officially opens the new post office with store manager Raj on Rigbourne Hill, Beccles.

Nick Butcher Photography 01502 714843

A pledge not to close more post offices for five years has been cautiously welcomed by an organisation that campaigns for rural communities in Norfolk.

Case study: The convenience story with a post office that had a £50,000 makeover

A new-style open-plan Post Office local branch has been running at a convenience store in Beccles for the last three months - something manager Raj Paratheepan said has been a success.

The Premier Express Rigbourne Hill Convenience Store underwent a £50,000 revamp in September to house the new Post Office, following the closure of the Post Office at the nearby East of England Co-operative Society shop 15 months before.

Mr Paratheepan, whose sister Nirosi Manokaran is the subpostmaster, said he wanted to save the service for the community, and so far is pleased with how things are going.

He said: “We get people coming in on a daily basis to use the post office for lots of different things. While people are here they can do their shopping and look at our promotions.

“I was expecting it to be a little busier but I think it will take a bit more time for people to know we are here. We are having a new car park built outside the shop around March so I think business will go up then because at the moment there is nowhere for customers to park.

“But all my customers tell me how pleased they are that we reopened the Post Office in this part of the town.”

Mr Paratheepan said the Post Office also benefits from the longer shop opening hours, allowing customers to use the service before and after work.

Post Office chief executive Paula Vennells yesterday told Radio 4’s Today programme “a new model” for post offices was needed, but insisted she was putting a focus on protecting rural and community branches.

Asked about the government subsidy for the Post Office, she said: “The money that the government has given us is now an investment. The really good news about that is that the 11,800 post offices we have today will stay, and hopefully at some stage we may even have more.”

She said the closure of 2,500 branches when she first took the post was “the worst job I have had in my life”, and admitted the loss of branches had “decimated communities”. Ms Vennells pointed to a new model including post offices being housed in convenience shops, and said there were growth areas for branches, such as online parcels click-and-collect services and new Post Office banking services.

Jon Clemo, chief executive of the Norfolk rural community council, said: “On the face of it, it’s good news, but there are a number of trends and issues that link to this. One is maintaining an actual branch being open is not the same as changing opening hours or the type of services on offer in that branch. There is also the question of when branches naturally close.

“It has been challenging to find a replacement sub-postmaster and premises to maintain a network because for many people it is not necessarily a very attractive life.”

However, he said the bigger question was access to services in rural areas, with the government’s strategy that services should be provided online by default causing challenges such as access to broadband and computers, and having skills and confidence to use them.

He added: “I think the key thing here is that we have to approach all of this not as ‘how do we maintain post offices in our rural communities?’, but ‘how do we make sure people in our communities have access to the services they need?’.”

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