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Angry residents protested creatively from 5pm outside the Royal Victoria Hotel

Angry residents protested creatively from 5pm outside the Royal Victoria Hotel

PO ‘consultation’ or ‘land grab’?

HOT’s Erica Smith gets all hot under the collar and personal over the Post Office Ltd’s ‘consultation’ about St Leonards Crown Post Office. If you care, please read this article and send your comments to: comments@postoffice.co.uk by the end of THIS Wednesday – 9 August.

HOT readers will know that for some time, the status of St Leonards Crown Post Office has been under threat. A local campaign group has been running since Autumn last year, and growing in numbers as the news of the intention to downgrade the Post Office has spread. The plans revealed at the ‘User Forum’ last Thursday have given locals even more to worry about, including an intended sale of the property direct to a business man with a criminal record for selling alcohol to minors. Read on to find out more.

Six weeks ago, Post Office Limited, a Government-owned company, announced a ‘consultation’ period about their ‘proposed branch modernisation’. The last day for locals to send in their views is Wednesday 9 August.

The Proposed Branch Modernisation document, which is available from the Post Office, is evasive about whether it is actually a consultation at all. At the top of page 2 it states (my italics):
“We’re now starting a period of local public consultation and over the coming weeks we’d like you to tell us what you think about the proposal. Although the decision to change the way we operate the branch, so it is run by our new retail partner, is not a matter for public consultation, before we finalise our plans, we would welcome any feedback or general comments you may have about the proposal but would particularly appreciate your views on the following areas:
– Do you have any comments about the proposed change
– Are there any other local community issues specific to the area of St Leonards-on-Sea which you believe could be affected by or affect the proposed change.”

Protestors were visible and vocal, but behaved thoughtfully and there was minimal disruption to the purpose of the meeting.

Protestors were visible and vocal, but behaved thoughtfully and there was minimal disruption to the purpose of the meeting.

At the well-attended ‘User Forum’ held on Thursday 3 August at the Royal Victoria Hotel, members of the local community finally got more out of the Post Office Ltd representatives than they would have liked to reveal. It became apparent that their plans are already well under way to transfer the freehold of the building over to their ‘new retail partner’, Mr Selva Muttiah. This means that the Government is intending to sell OUR property – a piece of prime real estate in the heart of St Leonards – direct to a private investor. He will be contracted to run a Post Office franchise in the building for a certain number of years (no one at the meeting seemed to know whether that was five years or 10 years). After that, it’s up to him what he does with the building. He would be free to sell it for redevelopment, and local residents may end up with a cramped Post Office counter in a local mini-market. In my opinion, the whole process stinks of back-hand privatisation being dressed up as ‘modernisation’.

00POconsultationcrowd

From the wording of the Proposed Branch Modernisation document quoted above, it would suggest that Post Office Ltd already considers this a ‘done deal’. The Post Office representatives, and Mr Muttiah, who also attended, wanted to focus the discussion on the layout of the new store, not the fact that the ‘modernisation’ would involve losing Crown Post Office status and therefore threatening the long-term future of a bespoke Post Office – the only one left in the whole of Hastings, St Leonards and the surrounding area.

It appears that Hastings Borough Council have also had the wool pulled over their eyes about the Post Office Ltd plans. Apparently, the franchise was offered on the Post Office Ltd website last July, and a letter was written to Hasting Borough Council notifying them that a business partner for the Post Office was being sought. When the Council became aware of the full reality of the situation, a motion supporting the continuation of the Crown Post Office status was raised at a full Council meeting. It was passed unanimously. No party political divide. Unanimous support for keeping our St Leonards post office a Crown Post Office.

In Reading, Berkshire, the Council took up the offer of becoming a partner in their town centre post office. That possibility was not suggested to Hastings Borough Council by Post Office Ltd.

It strikes me that the Post Office Ltd team in charge of the ‘modernisation process’ just wanted to make an easy sale. At the Royal Victoria Hotel User Forum, phrases like ‘asset-stripping’ and ‘land grab’ were shouted out by shocked members of the community when the intention for the private sale of a public asset became apparent.

The plans for the 'modernised' Post Office were not visible by the time I arrived at the meeting at 5.30pm, but this photograph shows more than 50% of the existing space is intended for retail, meaning the queues for Post Office Services will be compressed into a much smaller area.

The plans for the ‘modernised’ post office were not visible by the time I arrived at the meeting at 5.30pm, but this photograph shows that more than 50% of the existing space is intended for retail (shaded area on the right), meaning the queues for Post Office Services will be compressed into a much smaller area.

Mr Muttiah already owns several sub post offices, primarily in smaller towns and villages. Members of the Save The St Leonards Crown Post Office group have visited them and found them presentable, although they were staffed by only one or two members of staff, either recent graduates or people nearing retirement. They did not have the experience – and almost certainly do not get paid as much – as the staff at our Crown Post Office. Post Office Ltd claim that the Crown Post Office is not profitable, but refused to share the figures with us. My feeling is that there has been a positive intention to run down the service. Nationally a long-term drive to reduce the number of Crown Post Offices is under way, and deprived seaside towns are seen as an easy target.

Hundreds of local residents have already signed a pledge not to purchase non-Post Office products if the proposed franchise goes ahead.

Hundreds of local residents have already signed a pledge not to purchase non-Post Office products if the proposed franchise goes ahead.

Mr Muttiah’s plans are to take over the franchise of the Post Office, and continue (by contractual agreement) to provide the services offered currently, as well as trading as a newsagent. Off the top of my head, I can think of three newsagents and three local supermarkets in the immediate area that already sell newspapers, tobacco and sugary treats. I don’t see how opening another newsagent can either be a viable business plan, or help the retail capacity for the existing shops in the neighbourhood – to say nothing of helping to promote healthy life-style choices for local residents!

Even more seriously, one of the people who attended the meeting presented the Post Office Ltd team with a 50-page court document concerning Mr Muttiah and sale of alcohol to minors. Local resident Rachel Mount said:
“Mr Alphonson Selvakumar Muttiah was the manager / owner of the  Shelver’s Hill Post Office / convenience store, in Tadworth, Surrey which was involved in a local scandal and cause of great outrage from the local community when Mr Muttiah appeared in a 2009 court case for selling alcohol to underage children. On 10 December 2009, Mr Muttiah appeared before South East Surry Magistrates Court in Redhill for the offence of exposing alcohol for unauthorised sale by retail contrary to section 137 of the Licensing Act 2003 on 5 May 2009. Mr Muttiah was subsequently found guilty of the offence, fined and had his personal licence suspended for six months. This case involved Police, Council and Court time for over two years. The court paperwork shows the police and council had no confidence in Mr Muttiah’s management of the shop… In his summing up, Mr Muttiah’s own solicitor described him as ‘Utterly stupid, utterly naive and utterly irresponsible’.”

The User Forum ended at 7pm with the Post Office Ltd staff appealing to local residents to send their feedback about their concerns to <comments@postoffice.co.uk>.

One of the attendees at the meeting likened the consultation process to “rearranging the chairs on the Titanic”. It is hard to tell whether anything can really have any impact on what feels like an already made decision – but I urge all HOT readers to take 10 minutes out of their day and send that email. Bridgend in south Wales has successfully kept its Crown Post Office as the result of a widely supported and vocal community campaign. It is important that we all make our voices heard. Wouldn’t it be joyous if we could save our Post Office from the forces of underhand public asset-stripping and back door privatisation!

Go on – don’t give up yet – send that email to: comments@postoffice.co.uk

You can find out more about the Save St Leonards Crown Post Office campaign on Facebook.

And read more HOT articles about the campaign here.

Disclaimer: These words are my own personal opinions, as informed by my understanding of the public meeting and the background to the planned modernisation/privatisation of the Post Office. I am a St Leonards resident and have been active in the Save The St Leonards Crown Post Office campaign because I’m furious about the underhand way that this intended downgrading of our local post office – a valuable community resource – has been conducted.

After the consultation ended at 7pm, protestors marched along the seafront to the Post Office, accompanied by the sound of car horns from drivers showing their support.

After the consultation ended at 7pm, protestors marched along the seafront to the Post Office, accompanied by the sound of car horns from drivers showing their support.

Posted 17:22 Monday, Aug 7, 2017 In: Campaigns

Also in: Campaigns

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