www.hastingsonlinetimes.co.uk     Hastings & St. Leonards on-line community newspaper
The campaign goes on - from a rally outside St Leonards Crown PO in November.

The campaign goes on – from a rally outside St Leonards Crown PO in November.

Saving St Lens Post Office: lessons from Lancing

Can we in St Leonards, threatened with the loss of our Crown Post Office, learn from the experience of others facing the same fate? In the company of Patrick Glass, Rob Webb took a trip to Lancing to find out.

Like many people in St Leonards, I have followed the Post Office protest at a distance, signing the petition but not getting involved beyond that. So I jumped at the chance to find out more by taking a trip to Lancing with one of the protest organisers, Patrick Glass.

The idea was to see what we could learn from a ‘drop-in customer forum’ being held there. This was an opportunity for locals to meet and discuss a similar proposal with officials from Post Office Ltd. We were particularly keen to speak to Laura Tarling who is public affairs manager for the South East.

We parked close to the Post Office and popped into a doctor’ s surgery to ask the way to the meeting in St Michael’s Church Hall. Patrick, keen to gauge local interest, asked the receptionist for her views on the proposed post office relocation – and met limited interest. But we did learn that the original village post office had been located in the same shop – about 45 years ago – that was now looking to take on the new franchise.

The current Post Office is an imposing, stand-alone brick building, typical of the civic buildings of the thirties. Inside it is modern and airy with the appearance of having been recently modernised. The staff were naturally wary of talking to strangers but hinted at their dissatisfaction with the move, implying that jobs would be lost.

Little interest

We made our way to the church hall, failing to notice the tiny convenience store opposite the post office that was the subject of the franchise bid. In the church hall, there were three post office officials, and four members of the public. Laura was immediately available so Patrick set about questioning her.

We were excited at having an opportunity to talk to someone directly about the proposals for Crown Post Offices. Our idea was to find out how best to tailor opposition in St Leonards. However, no matter how hard Patrick tried he got little more than a public relations offensive, limited to the specific franchise proposal in Lancing.

Fortunately, there was nobody else waiting to talk to Laura so we could at least attempt to engage her in a wider discussion. She told us that the decision to franchise had been made back in June last year and that since the tendering process was already under way there was no going back. Although Laura feigned little or no knowledge of the situation in St Leonards, we understood that the same arrangement applies to all 30 current closures, of which St Leonards is one.

One particularly interesting point we were told was that local authorities are eligible to bid for franchises, but as Hastings Borough Council had expressed no interest at the time, this was no longer an option for St Leonards Post Office.

Dubious claims

Laura was very keen to explain how the new franchise would meet all the requirements of the residents of Lancing. She said it would provide all the same services (this is doubtful); that current employees could move to the new location (no doubt with loss of salary and conditions); that there was plenty of space in the new location (the floor plans did not look convincing); and that other things stocked by the convenience store would make it a much better post office/shopping experience (unlikely).

On leaving the meeting we were left with the strong impression that we had been dealing with a well trained public relations team intent on giving nothing away.

On the way back to the car we eventually found the proposed franchisee, a tiny convenience store operating under the Premier brand. It was already cramped and uninspiring, but with the takeover of the cash and carry giant Bookers by Tesco’s, such stores might be even more hard pressed to make a living. What could have provided a stripped down post office service in the past might struggle to provide any service in the future.

The PO’s letter to Lancing ‘customers’ contains statements such as: ‘a new branch in a modern retail environment’ (patently untrue), ‘Improving accessibility, an automated door would be installed at the entrance’ (grasping at straws). These statements, along with everything else about the meeting, rang very hollow as we made our way back to St Leonards.

Weasel words

The visit raised more questions than it answered, particularly whether public opinion could have any influence on the outcome of the proposed closures. This point of view is reinforced by an article in the financial publication This is Money from 21 June 2017 which states: “Those who run the network have a long history of using weasel words to hoodwink customers. Terms such as ‘network reinvention’, ‘transformation’, ‘investment’ and ‘change’ have all been used to mask the closure of almost 7,000 sub-post offices since 2000.”

This was certainly our experience of talking to Laura Tarling. Visiting the Post Office website was even more alarming. The following quotes come from onepostoffice.co.uk:

“We engage with stakeholders (MPs, members of the devolved assemblies, Local Authorities, special interest groups as well as Ministers and key parliamentarians in Whitehall and Westminster) and seek to influence them to support our business goals … every time there’s a change to a branch in their constituency … there’s a risk that without proper handling, local noise can escalate to a larger scale roar which reaches ministers or national stakeholder groups in a way that can knock us off course.”

Managing local problems

“If we can deal with local problems so they don’t escalate into political issues with which a minister would then become involved, that’s a positive outcome for us.”

“Our core ‘customers’ are our stakeholders, and our team is politically savvy and know what motivates politicians.”

The only conclusion we can come to from this visit is that local protest is treated with disdain. Well-honed strategies of misinformation and disingenuous promises are deployed at every turn. It seems that the only way to make any progress is to make the local protest part of a national campaign and to harness the current mood of fighting all things related to stripping the state of its public services.

 

Posted 11:24 Tuesday, Jul 11, 2017 In: Campaigns


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