The Post Office network in the Northfield area


There was a debate in Parliament recently about the future of the Post Office network. You may also have seen speculation in the press and elsewhere about the prospect of further post office closures locally. So I thought it would be useful to update constituents on my understanding of the current situation and let you know what I am doing as your local MP.

What is going on?

Post Office Ltd has announced that in June they will be publishing a review of the numbers of post offices in Birmingham, as part of a national programme called Network Change. This programme envisages the closure of approximately 2,500 post offices nationwide. Once published, Post Office Ltd’s proposals for Birmingham will be open for public consultation for a period of six weeks. By that time, Post Office Ltd will have already been in contact with Birmingham City Council and the consumer watchdog, Postwatch, to run though the basis on which they have drawn up their proposals for the city.

What am I doing as your local MP?

You may remember that when Post Office Ltd last put forward a list of post office closures about three years ago, I was active alongside local people in contesting some of the ways in which they had calculated local needs. In Northfield that helped save two of the post offices that were originally earmarked for closure.

This time I have already been in touch with Post Office Ltd to say how important it will be to take the needs of local people into account when drawing up their plans, to highlight some of those needs, and to emphasise the importance of their treating local people’s views seriously when it comes to the consultation period in the summer. I have also submitted documents to the Government on these issues and I recently put forward my views during a major debate in the House of Commons.

What are the issues?

I am doing what I can to help local people have more of a say in the future of their local post offices. However, I will not try to pretend to you that difficult decisions can be avoided this summer. The fact is that, as a society, we no longer use the Post Office as we once did. The network has lost some four million customers a week in the past few years and losses now run at around £3.5m a week.

There was a time when you had to go to the Post Office to buy a stamp. But those days are long gone. A million people per month now pay their car tax on-line, with almost half of them doing so outside normal office hours. Most welfare benefits and pensions are now paid directly into people’s bank accounts. Eight out of every ten pensioners choose to have their pensions paid into their own bank account even though they can still pick their pension up at the Post Office if they so choose.

All this has dramatically affected the viability of many post offices. That is why for some years now, both as a local MP and formerly as a member of Parliament’s Trade and Industry Committee, I have pressed Post Office Ltd to be more creative in looking for new business opportunities and to allow more sub post offices to sell products like car tax discs. I think that taking such actions could have helped to reduce the loss of customers. But it would be dishonest for anybody to try to convince you that this would have completely solved the problems faced by the Post Office.

Some people argue that the Government should have forced people to continue using post offices by refusing to pay pensions directly into personal bank accounts or by preventing the DVLA from making car tax available on-line. But if we are honest, most of us know that it would be neither practical nor popular for the Government to try to limit people’s options in this way. And it would cost more. For example, it costs the taxpayer 1p in administration to pay a welfare benefit or a pension into a personal bank account. It costs 80p to do so at a Post Office via the Post Office Card Account. And it costs £1.80 to pay by giro-cheque. It makes little sense for the Government to be paying out so much on avoidable administration costs when the money could be better spent on directly improving services to pensioners, or investing in health or transport or education.

No easy answers

Some politicians may try to pretend to you that these issues do not exist. They may just try to use the issue of post office closures to get publicity for themselves or to score party points – without facing up to the real decisions involved. I was straight with you when we faced local post office closures in South West Birmingham three years ago and I am being straight with you again this time.

The truth is that some Birmingham post offices will probably have to close. Even George Thomson, the General Secretary of the National Federation of Sub Postmasters, has said that ‘although regrettable, we believe that closures are necessary to ensure the remaining post offices are able to thrive in the future’.

However, none of this means that Post Office Ltd should reduce the whole process to simple commercial decisions or that we should not challenge the choices they make about which post offices should close. Many people – particularly older people – still rely on their local post office. Many post offices are also essential anchors for local shopping centres. This is why the Government has already invested £2 billion into the post office network since 1997 and will be putting in a further £1.7 billion up until 2011, including an annual network subsidy of £150 million a year. There was no subsidy at all before the present government was elected in 1997.

As a local community, our job over the coming months will be to impress on Post Office Ltd the importance of a sustainable network of local post offices in this area, to make sure that the locations are accessible on foot and by public transport, and that Post Office facilities and opening hours are good enough. Customers should not have to put up with the queues we have seen at some local post offices recently.

If you would like to let me know your views on these issues or if you have suggestions about what I should be saying to Post Office Ltd as your local MP in the coming months, please do get in touch.

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Richard Burden

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I was Labour Member of Parliament for Birmingham Northfield between 1992 and 2019 and a former Shadow Transport Minister. I now chair Healthwatch in Birmingham and Solihull, and the West Midlands Board of Remembering Srebrenica. I also work as a public affairs consultant. I am an effective community advocate and stakeholder alliance builder with a passion for human rights. I am a trustee of the Balfour Project charity and of Citizens Advice Birmingham, and a former Chair of Medical Aid for Palestinians.

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