I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend.
Partington’s nearest recommended post office site, as advised by the Post Office, is 3.9 miles away. Although that is a significant distance in and of itself, the post office is within a local Co-op store. Residents are unable to access the full range of services at that location, and to do so they have to travel even further into Urmston town centre. Having these services in local communities is incredibly important, and my hon. Friend is right to highlight that, once they are gone, they often do not return.
Like my hon. Friend’s constituency, there is not only one recent example of a post office closure in my constituency. The Woodsend Road post office has also been closed since last summer, and the loss of two local post office branches within a few months—like my hon. Friend’s example of three closures in his constituency—gives an insight into the scale of the challenge nationally. We know that many branches, particularly those in isolated communities, are struggling.
As well as losing access to vital banking and postal services, people in Partington and Woodsend Road have lost something else—an important community hub. I know the Minister recognises that the value of post offices goes beyond the provision of mere services; they can contribute to tackling loneliness, they can prevent older or more vulnerable people from becoming digitally excluded, and close and trusting relationships are built between staff and customers. Indeed, research from the Post Office shows that three in four people who use branch services list face-to-face interaction as their main reason for choosing to do so.
In preparation for this debate, I reached out to residents in Partington and around Woodsend Road asking them to contact my office to share the impact that the closure of their post office has had on them. I am grateful to everyone who did, and I will share a snapshot of their experiences.
One resident, aged 77, told my team that conversations with post office staff were the only human interaction he had. If losing this was not bad enough, the gentleman in question had to start relying on Partington’s one ATM to access cash. He was recently mugged just after using the machine, because criminals know that vulnerable people have no other place to go in Partington to withdraw cash. He is now understandably scared to use the ATM again, and he instead has to rely on a friend to drive him to the closest post office, several miles away.
Another resident, aged 89, described the loss of the post office as “devastating” to her independence. She explained how in the past she used to walk to her local branch, but now her family must travel from Oldham, in the north of Greater Manchester, to drive her all the way to the Sale post office for her to access the services she needs. Her family’s journey will take upwards of two and a half hours to complete, on a good day. Another constituent is now spending £20 a week on taxis to go to her nearest post office, following the closure of her local branch on Woodsend Road.
This is unacceptable, not least because often those most affected are pensioners and are therefore necessarily on fixed incomes. I have written to the Post Office about both branch closures in my constituency on multiple occasions to try to find a resolution. At both branches, the Post Office could have been better prepared in terms of recruiting a new postmaster to run the branch and providing some sort of alternative provision in the short term. The postmistress in Partington gave the Post Office three years’ notice of her impending retirement, yet we find ourselves in this unacceptable situation. I am still awaiting news on whether a mobile or drop and collect service could be put in place as a temporary measure to provide residents with access to post office services while a longer-term solution is sought. I had to request that, as, seemingly, it had not been proactively considered by the Post Office.
I understand from the Post Office that recruiting new postmasters can be challenging. That reflects a wider challenge nationally about the viability of branches in isolated communities and the remuneration of the people running them. That brings me on to the issue of the support that post offices need. Like any other retailer, post office branches are facing the challenge of declining footfall, as more and more people go online for services. That makes the host shops from which post offices often operate less commercially viable. We should also reflect on the provision of Government services through post offices, which have declined by more than 75% since 2010 and today make up only 4% of their overall revenue. In March 2024, the Government are set to withdraw their Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency services from post offices.
We also need to look at the relationship between banks and post offices. With high street banks, including those in Partington, closing en masse in recent years, post offices have increasingly had to step in to provide banking services in communities. The 5,500 bank closures since 2015 have saved those banks about £2.5 billion to £3 billion a year. There is a strong case, which the Minister has articulated previously, for some of that money to be redirected to support the post office network. I would be grateful if he could update us as to whether any progress has been made in talking to the banks about their potentially providing some revenue to support post office services. One of my local post offices, in Stretford, hosts pop-up banks regularly and that town centre also is to lose one of its banks in the near future.
Last but by no means least, we face the big issue that the cost of sustaining the loss-making post office network is significantly greater than the £50 million in annual network subsidy that the Post Office receives from the Government, as I highlighted earlier in my response to the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon). As the Post Office itself has said, the pressures on branches in isolated communities have increased, but the subsidy the Government have in place to support them has not reflected that. I understand that it has declined over the past decade, from £210 million in 2012 to £50 million per year in recent years. Will the Minister assure me that the £50 million subsidy and/or other forms of financial support is available to provide post office services in places such as Partington, which, although not rural, are certainly isolated? I understand that if the money has been reduced, there is less to go around, but it would be reassuring to know that somewhere such as that would be eligible. The previous postmistress was not accessing this grant in order to run her post office, but the difficulties in attracting a new postmaster to run the service suggest that it may be something that should be considered in the future. I would be incredibly grateful for the Minister’s support in working with the Post Office to try to establish that, and in looking at any ways in which we can restore post office services on Woodsend Road and, in particular, in Partington.
To conclude, I hope I have highlighted the importance of post offices to isolated communities, particularly those such as Partington, as well as those mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney and the hon. Member for Strangford. When residents lose these services, the impact can be devastating as they often support incredibly vulnerable customers. I again thank everybody affected by the post office closures in Partington and Woodsend Road who took the time to contact me and share their stories. I am pleased the Minister has had the chance to hear them today. I hope they help him to push for the changes needed to support our post office network moving forward and ensure those services are retained in isolated communities.