North Norfolk MP Norman Lamb lays out government’s latest Post Office shake up

In his new role as business minister, North Norfolk MP Norman Lamb has responsibility for postal affairs and this week revealed his and the government's plans for the future of the Post Office. But in Norfolk the proposals have already met with some scepticism. LUCY CLAPHAM reports.

The Post Office has long been a lynch-pin of communities across Norfolk, Suffolk and the nation.

Its red and yellow branding signifies a well-used and trusted hub where people from all walks of life can carry out essential, everyday tasks and errands as well as get help and advice on any number of services.

In recent years however, there has been a depressing toll of decline, with several re-organisations leading to the closure of many lifeline branches – often in isolated communities with few other amenities.

Now more changes are planned as the coalition government has outlined its 'network transformation' that it claims will keep the Post Office's strong community heart beating as it faces tough competitors and a changing market.

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North Norfolk MP Norman Lamb is helping to spearhead the wave of changes through his role as postal affairs minister and outlined the plans for a 're-invigorated' Post Office network when he addressed the National Federation of Sub-postmasters' annual conference on Monday.

During his speech he said he was 'determined' to make the transition work and said the network 'must adapt to customer and market demands [of] longer opening hours, quicker service, and accessible locations'.

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To keep the organisation viable, the government is introducing a new framework made up of main post offices in larger towns and cities and local branches, expected to be established in more rural areas, and has set aside �1.34bn to put the changes in place.

Alongside this, Mr Lamb said there was a 'clear ambition' for the Post Office to become a 'front office' for government, to help extend its range of services, and this was a move he was fully supporting.

But Andrew Worsdale, sub-postmaster at Holt, said he was wary of any promises.

He said: 'All we have at the moment is this phrase that keeps being trotted out about the Post Office should become the front office of government, but I can't really see any serious signs of any flesh being put on that.'

Mr Worsdale, who also worked as sub-postmaster in Sheringham, said more of the Post Office's traditional services, such as TV licensing, were moving online despite the fact there were still 'millions' of people who were not au fait with the internet, including many elderly people.

He said: 'The government's not really been making use of the Post Office network for many years.

'This government says it won't do what the last government did by endorsing a closure programme. From personal experience the rates of pay being given by the Post Office to sub-postmasters are making it increasingly difficult to sustain businesses.

'All I see is the development of walk-away options that will allow the Post Office network to shrink in size without appearing that this is a deliberate act,' he added.

Mr Worsdale did acknowledge, however, that Mr Lamb's push for the Post Office to become a mutual organisation could be of benefit to him and fellow counter staff by giving them more of a chance to have their say.

He said: 'I think they should listen to me for a change when I want to give them a few lectures about how they're wasting money, rather than me just constantly receiving lectures down the line.'

During his speech Mr Lamb said he was 'passionate' about employee ownership and believed such a change to the Post Office would 'foster a more sustainable economy that serves the many, not the few'.

Mr Worsdale thought the mutual move was a 'good idea in theory', but thought it needed to be made soon.

'So many post offices are teetering on the edge already. The longer this drags on it's difficult to be too optimistic,' he added.

Mr Lamb has taken strides to get this ball rolling and used his speech to announce the establishment of a stakeholder forum that would help 'define the purpose of the Post Office, around which a future mutual could be built'.

The forum would represent sub-postmasters, staff and customers and be the first of its kind, he said, as it would bring all those associated with the Post Office together to work collectively on developing its future.

He also reported positives and said some counters in Westminster had begun providing services on behalf of their council and trials of new local branches had been successful, with more than 170 now running across the country.

Mr Lamb added: 'A huge amount of work is going into making the long term future of the business a sustainable one.

'Both the prospects of the network transformation programme and the shift to a business strategy focused on growth and services, give me confidence that the Post Office will have a more positive financial outlook by the end of this parliament.'

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