New concerns over rural post offices

Elaine MaslinA warning shot has been fired by a rural champion for Norfolk over the future of the county's post offices in the wake of a scathing report on last year's closures.Elaine Maslin

A warning shot has been fired by a rural champion for Norfolk over the future of the county's post offices in the wake of a scathing report on last year's closures.

Post Office Ltd has been criticised for the way it ran its consultation over the closure of 2,500 branches nationally last year - 69 of which were proposed in Norfolk and west Suffolk.

In a report released this week, Post Office was accused of treating communications as "a necessary evil" and that lessons needed to be learned by the company and other providers of essential local services.

Problems faced by Norfolk communities trying to fight for their local branches included Post Office not having done its homework on branches, such as in one case where it would have taken three days by bus to get to the next branch and people only being able to give reasons to keep their branch relating to a specific criterion of access.

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But, Norfolk Rural Community Council chairman John Clemo said communities should now be looking to future cuts to rural post offices.

He said: "Yes, it is important we understand what went wrong with the previous consultation. But come 2011 we will be look at this issue again. The government will be reviewing the network subsidy. We need to look at options to make sure rural communities have access to the services they need."

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The report into the consultation, which ran nationally from 2008 but hit Norfolk in 2009, was put together by Consumer Focus, a statutory watchdog created from the merger of Energywatch, Postwatch and the National Consumer Council.

It said an unprecedented number of people - around 2.7 million - tried to air their views about the closure programme through writing to their local MP, taking part in newspaper campaigns or other means.

But, Post Office "failed to effect-ively engage consumers, with only around one in 13 directly contribu-ting to the formal decision-making process to close local post offices".

Although many people took part in local activities such as petitions, these were less effective in influencing the final decision on closures than a formal response, the report said.

It added: "As a result, Post Office missed opportunities to obtain valuable local knowledge of how cutbacks would affect communities, and many consumers were left feeling that the consultation process was a sham."

The six-week consultation period was deemed not long enough and Post Office then did not show the reasons for its decisions to those who had commented, only showing the reasons to key stakeholders and groups, it said.

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