Fight is on for rural post offices

STUNNED villagers in several rural communities are this week coming to terms with the news that their post offices are earmarked for closure. Post offices at Tacolneston, New Buckenham, Scole, Bressingham and Wattisfield face the axe as part of a nationwide closure programme.

STUNNED villagers in several rural communities are this week coming to terms with the news that their post offices are earmarked for closure.

Post offices at Tacolneston, New Buckenham, Scole, Bressingham and Wattisfield face the axe as part of a nationwide closure programme. Gislingham post office will shut and the village is being offered outreach facilities.

As a host of communities across Norfolk and north Suffolk prepare for an against-the-odds fight to save their facilities, the closures were being seen as a kick in the teeth to the region's rural way of life.

Thousands of the oldest and most vulnerable people could now be faced with a trek of up to three miles to get to their closest post office.

At Scole Stores, assistant sub postmaster Martin Donnelly told the Mercury: "We do intend to fight the proposed closure as we have been doing."

Sub postmistress Kim Charles has launched a petition calling for a longer consultation process over the future of post offices. South Norfolk MP Richard Bacon has also condemned the six-week consultation period and is pressing the government for an extension.

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Sub post master Geoff Laurence at Gislingham post office said: "We finished building this property two years ago which the Post Office contributed to with a view to keeping the post office and shop open for the next 20 years. We currently operate for almost 45 hours a week and they are proposing to offer outreach, putting it into the local pub for nine hours a week, and recommending we use the Wortham branch as an alternative outside these hours.

“It's on the Diss bus route from here but I dread to think how long it takes. The bus stops on the wrong side of the A143, you have to walk along a dirt track and get up three steps so it's not DDA compliant.

“By doing this, they are not only closing the post office but the shop as well because one without the other is not viable. We won't survive, there's no question. I have been a post master for 33 years and we have been here for 20. The original building is the oldest (post office) in mid Suffolk established in 1841, and before that it was used for sorting parcels.”

New Buckenham sub postmaster Terry Baines told the Mercury: "We are not surprised because of the lack of traffic at the counter due to the loss of government business over the years. We have some older people who have some difficult in getting money and they will have to make some form of arrangement. We are worried what the impact will be on the village store.”

The Norfolk and Suffolk plans are part of the Post Office's bid to save money by closing 2,500 branches across England and Wales.

Each post office will close, subject to a six-week consultation exercise branded a “sham” by one angry Norfolk MP.

The list includes 47 outright closures in Norfolk and 14 in West Suffolk.

North Norfolk MP Norman Lamb, who faces the loss of nine post offices in his constituency, said: “This is disastrous and the death knell for rural communities. I am committed to fighting these closures, but I am also aware that this 'consultation' exercise looks like a sham.”

South-West Norfolk MP Christopher Fraser on Tuesday met officials from the Post Office and they agreed to take part in a public meeting on his patch in the next fortnight, on a day and at a place to be agreed.

He said: “If this period of public consultation is going to be a success we have got to allow the voice of the people of Norfolk to be heard loud and clear. People need to know what they have to convince the Post Office of in order to save their facilities.”

South Norfolk Council has been campaigning hard for the survival of its post offices.

Councillor Michael Windridge said: “We are shocked at the sheer scale of the closures announced for Norfolk, and we share the anger of everyone at this news. This will rip the heart out of many rural villages and communities.

“It will leave many, including vulnerable older people with little or no access to transport, deprived of essential services and local support.

“We will be working with local communities, postmasters and postmistresses to continue our high profile campaign to save our local post offices.”

The campaign, which has a distinctive logo, is backed by South Norfolk MP Richard Bacon who said at its launch: “Many people rely on the local village post office, particularly the elderly and the vulnerable and those who have difficulty in travelling

any great distance.”

Peter Medhurst, chairman of Norfolk Rural Community Council, said: “We are trying to raise a campaign to make the post offices more viable in each community.

“We are encouraging people to make them into community hubs, coming together and bringing other facilities under one roof to make them more viable for the long term. Post offices are pivotal parts of the community.”

Despite much local opposition, the National Federation of Sub-Postmasters is not against the closure programme.

Sally Reeves, chairman of the organisation's negotiating committee, said: “If I was to say we don't want any closures that would be the heart talking. There's not enough business to keep all those sub-post offices open.

“It's heartbreaking that some have to close to maintain the network. We are keen that the closures are managed, not random. Hopefully, Post Office Ltd is applying sensibly the access criteria.”

The criteria mentioned is that 99pc of the country's population must be within three miles and 90pc within one mile of their nearest post office. In deprived urban areas, 99pc must be within one mile, while 95pc of the total urban area must also be within one mile.

No-one available to comment at Tacolneston Convenience Store and Post Office yesterday and at Bressingham sub postmaster Alan Byrne said: "My reaction is one of indifference. We had an armed robbery 15 months ago, two days before Christmas, and as a result of that our heart hasn't been in the job. From the village community point of view, it would be a shame if the post office is lost. What we want is our own village to continue to support the shop because that is important.”