MP Norman Lamb urges Norfolk County Council to work with him on Post Office plans

Business minister and Norfolk MP Norman Lamb has urged the county council to engage with him on what he called a 'fantastic opportunity' to offer some of its services through post offices and secure the future of the vital community resource.

Following the example of Sheffield City Council, which has recently published a report on its own pilot scheme, Norfolk County Council is set to look at the potential benefits of working more closely with the Post Office.

Services trialled elsewhere in the country include payments made to young people leaving care and issuing Blue Badge renewals.

At a meeting of the county council's corporate resources overview and scrutiny panel yesterday, councillors agreed to enter into discussions with the service about setting up its own pilot in Norfolk.

Debbie Bartlett, head of planning, performance and partnership for the county council, told the panel: 'I know the Post Office is chomping at the bit to come and talk to us about it. They are very enthusiastic about this.

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'They've already got a pilot that works in an urban setting and we would want to talk about what thinking they have done about rural post offices and rural settings.'

Councillors on the panel approved three recommendations by officers which would allow the council to move forward with its proposals.

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The council will now contact Mr Lamb, as postal services minister, to clarify the government's view on the future of post offices, further investigate the options open to it in terms of the specific council services that could be offered through them, and engage with the Post Office – potentially by inviting them to the panel's next meeting – to get its views.

Speaking from Westminster yesterday, Norman Lamb, North Norfolk MP, said: 'I hope the county council engages with me as a minister on this issue. We have got a fantastic opportunity for Norfolk to enhance what is a really important service in the area.'

Mr Lamb said the Sheffield pilot scheme was one of 25 rolled out across rural and urban areas by the government.

He said: 'Together you can achieve a win, win, win. You can cut the cost of delivering a service for the council – some councils have been able to shut down central offices. You would then be able to give an extra income to the post offices and, critically, you would provide a more efficient, more convenient service for citizens closer to their homes rather than trekking into County Hall or City Hall or district council offices.'

Pilot projects like the one in Sheffield have sought to improve the sustainability of post offices.

Last night a Post Office spokesman said: 'Post Office Ltd would welcome the opportunity to discuss working with Norfolk County Council about becoming the customer access point for council services.'

In 2008, the Post Office announced it would be closing around 50 branches across the Norfolk which were no longer deemed viable. Branches in Beeston, New Buckenham, Vauxhall Street in Norwich, and New Costessey were later given a reprieve.

Mr Lamb said: 'We have got this remarkable network which reaches into some of the most rural communities and yet, over the years, we have massively failed to use the network effectively enough.'

The minister said the coalition government was determined to reverse the decline of post offices seen over the last decade and was planning to increase the number of government services accessible through the network.

'As we move to a more digital delivery of government services, there will always be people who cannot handle digital services and the Post Office has a critical role to play there,' he added.

Speaking at yesterday's meeting, county councillor Graham Jones, who represents the Mundesley division, said: 'This is really fundamentally important to rural areas.'

The Liberal Democrat proposed setting up a working party – which he said Mr Lamb would be willing to attend – to discuss the issue fully.

But the motion defeated by councillors from the ruling party who feared a working party would not offer responses quickly enough.

Following the meeting Mr Jones called the decision not to embrace a chance to bring Mr Lamb in on a working party 'backward'.

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