ONCE again this week, the issue of moving Aberystwyth’s Crown Post Office from its bespoke home on Great Darkgate Street to be incorporated into WHSmith’s shop on Terrace Road dominated community politics in the town.
Last Friday (Aug 26), a team of Post Office and WHSmith representatives visited the sites in Aberystwyth, talked with Post Office staff, and in the evening held a public ‘consultation’ meeting in the Morlan Centre.
On Saturday morning (Aug 27), the Save Aberystwyth Post Office campaign again staged its regular picket of WHSmith. Elements of this action elicited an initially hostile response from shop managers who called the police. Ultimately, WHSmith staff and pickets engaged and a better mutual understanding was reached.
The agenda of Tuesday evening’s (Aug 30) meeting of Ceredigion People’s Assembly at the Black Lion in Llanbadarn Fawr was then dominated by the Post Office issue, with the group planning its next steps to resist the move.
The so-called ‘consultation’ meeting in the Morlan Centre on Friday evening was a feisty affair attended by more than sixty people. The consultative panel comprised two representative of Post Office Ltd., Stuart Taylor and Andy Wright, with Kevin Hogarth representing WHSmith. The meeting was chaired by Ceredigion MP Mark Williams who admitted his own bias, being unimpressed by the consultation process to date and staunchly in favour of maintaining full Crown Post Office services at the current site. Nevertheless, Mark Williams did a sterling job of making sure that as many voices as possible were heard in the meeting, giving the panel space to respond and, for the most part, maintaining a respectful order in quite a belligerent atmosphere.
To his credit, Stuart Taylor, Post Office Ltd.’s Head of External Relations Wales, Midlands and South, worked hard for his salary, fielding many difficult questions from the floor, though his answers did not often satisfy the assembled public. Stuart Taylor received occasional support from Kevin Hogarth from WHSmith while, after introducing himself, Andy Wright mostly sat with a fixed smile and rabbit-caught-in-the-headlights eyes. Stuart Taylor was adamant that the decision to move the Post Office has not yet been made: it was not a done deal with WHSmith. He also stated that WHSmith was the only company that had pursued an expression of interest that Post Office Ltd. invited in January. Contradicting previous reports, including some published in The Herald, Stuart Taylor insisted that, if indeed the move was made, the Post Office in WHSmith would continue to provide all the current Crown services. In April this year, Post Office Ltd. announced plans to move up to 61 branches into WHSmith stores over the next year, including 39 Crown Post Offices.
THE BIG ISSUES
A number of specific concerns with the proposed move were raised on Friday. One set of concerns centred on the space available in the Terrace Road premises, whether the shop was big enough and fit for purpose as a Post Office. One audience member believed there was simply not enough room for a Post Office to function properly in WHSmith. He pointed out that shopping in the store was already a crowded and inconvenient experience, especially if your magazine of choice, Practical Woodworker or Model Engineer, say, was located on the bottom shelf of the magazine display and you had to crawl along the floor between people’s feet to find it!
The issue of space took a more serious turn as wheelchair users and sight-impaired members of the audience voiced their concerns about access to a Post Office located in WHSmith. The open letter from Roger Gale, General Manager of the Crown and WHSmith Network of Post Office Ltd., printed on glossy paper and made available at Friday’s meeting, specifies that the relocated Crown Post Office would be ‘to the rear of the WHSmith store’. Moth Foster, who is sight-impaired himself, believed it would be impossible to provide wide enough aisles in the store to grant unobstructed, safe and convenient access for sight-impaired people and those using wheelchairs.
Unfortunately, Post Office Ltd. had not published floor-plans for the redesigned WHSmith store. Brandishing his own plan on a single sheet of A4, Stuart Taylor claimed plans could not be made publically available for security reasons. Members of the audience responded that there were not many options about where to locate a Post Office counter in the rear of WHSmith, and they cast considerable doubt on whether that location would anyway be of much interest to international terrorist networks.
Space was again the concern as an audience member questioned how privacy could be maintained in such a small area for confidential matters such as banking, obtaining foreign currency and various licensing and insurance services. Mark Williams pressed the matter of the UKVI Biometric Enrolment Service which is essential to Aberystwyth as a university town that hosts international students. This service is also essential to asylum seekers whom, as a ‘Trailblazer Local Authority’, Ceredigion is welcoming into the community. The Post Office Ltd. open letter helpfully informs customers that the nearest alternative for the Biometric Enrolment Service is Port Talbot, a four hour, 160 mile roundtrip by car. From the floor, Ceredigion AM Elin Jones pointed out that, since the demise of Lewis Coaches, there were no public transport options to get to Port Talbot besides an unfeasible ten-hour rail journey, typically costing more than £65 return. The open letter from Roger Gale states that ‘retaining the UKVI Biometric Enrolment Service at the proposed new branch will be subject to Home Office approval’, anticipating that, at least, that there may be an ‘interruption to the availability of this service’. To the audience’s vociferous approval, Mark Williams stated that any interruption at all in the service would be wholly unacceptable. Stuart Taylor acknowledged how important the issue was to the community, while Andy Wright’s fixed smile tightened almost imperceptibly.
Maintaining the employment rights of staff, their working conditions and rates of pay, along with recognition of their trade union, the Communication Workers Union (CWU), were issues that worried citizens assembled in the Morlan. For Post Office Ltd. Stuart Taylor pledged there would be no compulsory redundancies and that Post Office staff, a number of whom attended the meeting, would be employed in WHSmith, redeployed in the Post Office or offered voluntary redundancy. Kevin Hogarth gave his guarantee that WHSmith pay the National Living Wage announced by George Osborne last year. At £7.20 per hour, the National Living Wage replaced the £6.50 minimum wage. It should not be confused with the UK Living Wage, as promoted by the Living Wage Foundation, which is currently £8.25 an hour, though such confusion may have been the former Chancellor’s intention. Hogarth also denied that WHSmith use zero hours contracts. However, Steve Clarke, Chief Executive of WHSmith, has admitted that they do use zero-hours contracts for staff who, he claims, request them. Kevin Hogarth did not know whether WHSmith recognised the CWU but he promised to find out and report back. The audience found this lack of knowledge passing strange from a representative of a company that has been franchising Post Office services since 2006.
The Post Office Ltd. and WHSmith spokesmen seemed to shoot themselves in the foot when they claimed that the new branch could simultaneously offer weekend opening by employing students and other casual staff who wished to work weekends, not forcing trained Post Office staff to work weekends, and maintaining professional Crown services. Elizabeth Morley was one of a number of speakers from the floor who wondered how it would be feasible to make the investment in training casual staff to provide complex financial and administrative services.
Following this point and a number of searching follow-up questions about employee rights from the Ceredigion Labour Party contingent at the meeting, the panel looked not a little abashed.
A number of Town and County Councillors attended the meeting, unanimously expressing their objection to the proposed move. Mark Williams paid Post Office Ltd. and WHSmith the back-handed compliment that not many things could bring Liberal Democrats, Plaid Cymru, the Labour Party and the Greens together in Ceredigion, but they had certainly managed it! Councillors Mark Strong and Talat Chaudri led the questioning of the panel on WHSmith’s poor record on the Welsh language. They did not accept the panel’s reassurances that Welsh language signage in the relocated branch would be maintained by WHSmith to the standards set by Post Office Ltd. in its own premises. On this issue, the councillors were ceded the moral high ground due to the fact that Post Office Ltd. had failed to arrange translation services for the consultation meeting itself.
On the issue of the WW1 memorial plaque in the Great Darkgate Street premises, if the relocation goes ahead Post Office Ltd. has pledged to ‘work with Royal Mail to identify the most appropriate place to locate the memorial so that members of the public can continue to pay their respects to our colleagues who sacrificed their lives’.
Stuart Taylor said they would work with the Royal British Legion and the War Memorials Trust on the issue. If possible, he said, they also wanted to contact the families. The seven men commemorated on the brass plaque are: John Frederick Bird, Thomas Cartwright, John Richard Davies, Emlyn Mason Jones, David Davies Lewis, Maldwyn Richards and Arthur Williams. Further details of their lives and deaths can be found on the West Wales War Memorial Project website (www.wwwmp.co.uk/the-ceredigion-war-memorials/aberystwyth-post-office-war-memorial).
ONLY ONE OPTION AND NO CHOICE
Following Friday’s meeting in the Morlan, Mark Williams pledged to meet with Post Office staff soon. He told The Herald: “I remain implacably opposed to the proposed move of the Aberystwyth Post Office. That I believe is the will of my constituents, certainly those who have contacted me or signed our cross-party petitions, and was certainly the view of Friday’s meeting when not one member of the public spoke in favour. If the Post Office consultation is indeed a consultation then these views must be fully acknowledged and the plans for this move dropped! The truth is that this ‘consultation’ cannot be described as such. There is only one option on offer, and no choice. A like it or lump it approach is not acceptable, not least because of the practicalities of the move.”
Mark Williams reiterated ‘legitimate concerns’ about the entitlements of the Welsh language, disability access, privacy, protecting the rights of Post Office staff, and relocating the war memorial plaque. He also remained very concerned about any ‘short interruption’ to the UKVI Biometric Enrolment Service. Finally, Mark Williams shared his worry that ‘the effect of the move will undermine the vibrancy of Great Darkgate Street’ as the town’s main thoroughfare, commercial and social heartbeat.
THE SINGING PICKETS
On Saturday, from 11am to 1pm, the Save Aberystwyth Post Office campaign staged its now regular picket of WHSmith in Terrace Road. The picket of around 20 people stood with colourful Ceredigion People’s Assembly and Ceredigion Labour Party
banners outside the store and handed out flyers to would-be customers and interested passers-by. Made aware of the issue, a number of would-be customers decided to take their business elsewhere in solidarity. Some members of the picket sang both heartfelt and humorous songs in support of the Save Aberystwyth Post Office campaign. Initially, WHSmith managerial staff reacted with hostility, demanding that the impromptu choir move themselves and their belongings from a portion of the pavement they claimed was private property. For a while, some members of the picket cheekily walked a fine line, literally miming tightrope walkers to make their way along the vague line between public and private property.
Meanwhile, the singing continued and WHSmith management called the police.
When they arrived, however, there was little that police could do as the picket was evidently orderly and good natured. Ultimately, members of the picket engaged in conversation with WHSmith managerial staff and a better mutual understanding was reached. At the meeting on Friday night, the prospect of a boycott of WHSmith had seen Kevin Hogarth visibly blanch. Certainly, WHSmith regional management will make themselves few friends in Aberystwyth if they continue with plans to franchise the Post Office.
THE BIGGER PICTURE
Following Friday’s meeting, Mel Corfield of Post Office Ltd.’s Communications Team responded to The Herald on behalf of Stuart Taylor, reiterating the assurances that he gave the meeting and assuring the public, that ‘all of the feedback from the meeting will be very carefully considered as part of the public consultation, before any final decision is taken’. Post Office Ltd. report that there was an 8% loss of customer base in Aberystwyth over the last two years. They are adamant that franchising is an effective way to make the branch commercially sustainable and that WHSmith is a proven partner. Mel Corfield said: “Existing staff at Aberystwyth would have the right to transfer their employment to WHSmith if they wish to do so, in line with TUPE legislation [Transfer of Undertakings (Protection of Employment) Regulations, 1981] which is designed to protect terms and conditions. We discuss all options individually with staff affected so they can make informed decisions about their future.”
Participants in Friday night’s meeting questioned why it was that Aberystwyth Post Office’s customer base had declined, suggesting that services had been deliberately run down to legitimise franchising. Many of those present believed that the effective privatisation of the Post Office is a driven by the Conservative government’s ideological agenda of stripping back the state, a proposition that Stuart Taylor and the other panellists declined to comment on. Although Stuart Taylor repeated that only WHSmith followed through on an expression of interest in taking over postal services in Aberystwyth, that should not surprise anyone. Given that the Post Office Ltd. and WHSmith have a ten year history of working together on these deals and that the process is almost certainly bureaucratically arduous, what chance would an independent player have to compete? If not the Monopolies Commission, then some watchdog should surely be wary on the public’s behalf about this cosy little arrangement. Then, why is that WHSmith can run a Post Office branch as a commercial proposition, despite the fact that they sacrifice a significant area of shop floor, but Post Office Ltd. cannot? Perhaps Post Office Ltd. could make more creative use of the available space in the front of the Great Darkgate Street premises?
Concerns were expressed about both the future of Post Office services and the Post Office building itself in the long term. On the first count, Jo Eastlake of Ceredigion People’s Assembly, the umbrella group for the cross-party Save Aberystwyth Post Office campaign, wondered what would happen if WHSmith made the commercial decision to leave the town, or if they went the way of Woolworths or, most recently, BHS: How would Post Office services be maintained in the town? Johnny Gaunt of Ceredigion Labour Party commented that, when the austerity moment had passed, we would likely be seeking to take the Post Office back in to private ownership as was now the case with the railways. Mark Williams’ concerns about heart of the town being ripped out as the government’s privatisation agenda grinds inexorably on, the state is pared away and rural areas are further marginalised, should be taken very seriously for the sake of the future if not, indeed, the present. Up in Scotland, the CWU’s ‘Save our Post Office’ campaign is in full swing, with the union’s Big Red Battlebus visiting Edinburgh, Glasgow and Paisley earlier this month.
On the Post Office building itself, Aberystwyth residents are concerned about what will happen to the Grade II listed building which is of special interest and warrants preservation. Being listed means the owners cannot change the physical appearance or listed features without listed building consent in addition to normal planning consent. As to change of use, however, will the Post Office become another franchise coffee bar, another £1 discount store, or just another empty premises? The Post Office building is owned by Dark Gate Properties Limited, a company only incorporated eighteen months ago. Dark Gate Properties has its registered office in Greater London and has two directors – David Michael Rocke and Brenda Diane Carbonette. Five shareholders are listed: Meirion Ellis Jones, Brenda Carbonette, Julie Vanessa Rocke, David Rocke and Andrew Rocke.
HAVE YOUR SAY AND TAKE ACTION
Elin Jones AM told The Herald: “People in Aberystwyth want to keep the Post Office in its current location, rather than see it squeezed into the WHSmith premises. It is also worrying to know that our postal services will be delivered by a private sector business, with future consequences for employment practices and wages. Both the Post Office and WHSmith need to reflect on the strongly-held views of people in Aberystwyth and retain and build on the service provided directly from the historic Great Darkgate Street building.”
Although there is only one franchising alternative for Crown Post Office services in Aberystwyth, that is WHSmith, Stuart Taylor repeatedly told the meeting on Friday night that the move was not a done deal: Aberystwyth can still keep its Crown Post Office in the current premises on Great Darkgate Street if we are prepared to campaign hard enough for long enough and in sufficient numbers.
You can have your say online at postofficeviews.co.uk. Follow the link to commenting on a proposed branch change, click on ‘Enter Post Office Branch Code’ and enter 002647. That should get you to the Aberystwyth branch survey and you can work your way through a short questionnaire. But beware, the questions all lead you to comment on the new branch. If you want the Crown Post Office to stay where it is on Great Darkgate Street run by Post Office Ltd., then you need to say so clearly. You can also email email@example.com, give feedback via the customer helpline 03457 22 33 44 or write to ‘FREEPOST Your Comments’.
Ceredigion Labour Party told The Herald that they were ‘delighted that the Post Office’s consultation meeting was so well attended and that so many passionate voices were heard in overwhelming opposition to the privatisation and move of Aberystwyth Crown Post Office to WHSmith’. They continued: “We call on everyone in Ceredigion to support the campaign and the boycott of WHSmith, and we urge WHSmith to reconsider their position.” The Save Aberystwyth Post Office campaign picket of WHSmith takes place every Saturday between 11am and 1pm.
If you are the family of the men listed on the war memorial plaque in the Post Office on Great Darkgate Street, or know anything relevant about their families, please contact Post Office Ltd., the CWU and/or the War Memorials Trust.