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Post Office ‘consultation’ – but there is no alternative!

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Saturday morning picket: Outside WHSmith

Saturday morning picket: Outside WHSmith

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.

FEISTY FRIDAY! 

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 comments@postoffice.co.uk, 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.

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Calls for return of mental health beds to Ceredigion

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PLAID CYMRU AM Simon Thomas has called for the return of mental health beds in Aberystwyth in a response to a consultation by Hywel Dda University Health Board on adult mental health services.

Bronglais Hospital’s mental health Afallon ward in Aberystwyth was closed in 2012.

Shadow Cabinet Secretary for Rural Affairs Simon Thomas said: “I am particularly concerned at the failure to provide an adequate mental health service in Ceredigion at present. There being no adult hospital or community mental health beds in the county with people having to travel to Carmarthen.

“It seems that there will be no treatment beds between Llanelli and Bangor, a distance of 145 miles.

“This is a failure to deliver for the residents of Hywel Dda or to recognise the travel to work set ups in the region. It is particularly disappointing that the work of the Mid Wales Healthcare Collaborative has not led to a significant improvement in the area of mental health treatment beds.

“I would argue for the reinstatement of beds in Aberystwyth which were removed without consultation or discussion from Afallon Ward in 2012.”

He outlined his party policy and welcomed certain features of the proposals by Hywel Dda University Health Board.

Mid and West AM Simon Thomas added: “Plaid Cymru believes in improving access to trained counsellors and therapists in the community. We also want to ensure every community should have reasonable access to provision of emergency mental health care beds.

“I hope these proposals mean that Hywel Dda University Health Board will take seriously the need to invest in additional therapeutic models of treatment to widen choice and move away from a ‘one size fits all’ approach to treatment.

“I support the ‘Time to Change’ campaign against prejudice and discrimination towards those with mental health problems. This means that Hywel Dda UHB itself must set a gold standard in ensuring that support services are available for employees with mental health problems.

“I welcome the proposal in the consultation to ensure a 24/7 Community Mental Health Centre in each county with four crisis and recovery beds on site.

“I’m pleased that they will be a place of safety for people detained by the police under Section 136 of the Mental Health Act. This will help prevent people in crisis from having to stay in a police cell for assessment.

“The use of centres as a bridge facility for people to go to after as hospital stay and before they go home will be desirable, as is the 24/7 operation with open access meaning fewer delays for people and no waiting lists for referrals.

“I welcome the proposals to develop social enterprises and cooperatives at Community Mental Health Centres but note that this will need investment and resources to be achieved successfully.

“Even under these proposals there will continue to be real issues regarding travel time for people from Ceredigion and Pembrokeshire with the Central Assessment Unit based at Glangwili General Hospital in Carmarthen and the Central Treatment Unit based at Prince Philip Hospital in Llanelli.  This is particularly the case for those reliant on public transport and their families and carers.

“The idea of a Single Point of Contact for people if they want to seek advice or want to make a referral into adult mental health services is a good one. A mix of options to speak to someone on the telephone, via email, or via text would be the best to access the Single Point of Contact.”

The consultation ended last Friday (Sept 15).

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Police issue safety advice for new university students

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DYFED-POWYS POLICE has issued advice to students who are starting university for the first time and has put together a checklist of security tips.

Superintendent Robyn Mason, head of the Community Safety Support Team, said: “Quite often this is the first time young people have lived away from home.  There is so much going on, meeting new people and exploring new places that students often forget about the importance of keeping themselves and their property safe.

“Our universities are set in beautiful areas, so it’s no surprise that they attract students from across the UK and beyond – we want them to enjoy their experience and not fall foul of criminals.

“We also want to safeguard the students from our area who might be moving away for the first time, and help them keep themselves and their property safe while they are away from home.

“One of the most important things to remember is that alcohol can seriously affect your sense of awareness, leading you to take risks. We want students to have fun, but be safe. If you become a victim of crime, or witness a crime taking place, we would urge you to contact 999 in an emergency or 101 if it is a non-urgent matter.”

Uniformed police officers along with PCSOs will carry out regular patrols in areas where there are a high number of student flats and houses. They will also be out to meet students as they arrive in the Dyfed-Powys Police area by being present at freshers’ fairs to provide crime prevention advice, and patrolling busy night spots into the early hours.

Thieves are known to target students and their properties because they know they have rarely lived away from home and might not be as security conscious as they could be.

Students are encouraged to register their equipment at www.immobilise.com. This is a free service which only takes a few minutes to complete, but will assist police in returning stolen equipment to the rightful owner in the case of theft or burglary.

Superintendent Mason concluded: “During the first few days on campus, we advise that you make themselves familiar with the area – pick up a map, bus or train timetable, and save the number of a reliable taxi firm in your phone. Parents can help with this if they are dropping students off at university for the first time.”

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Claims Ceredigion Council is clearing Bodlondeb before consultation closes

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MEMBERS of the Save Bodlondeb Steering Group have been contacted by relatives of some of the Home’s residents, who have claimed the Council is taking steps to empty the home of residents before the end of the consultation period.

The relatives have reported that Ceredigion Social Services has contacted a number of residents’ families, inviting them to attend assessments of their loved one’s care needs at less than twenty four hours’ notice.

Late afternoon on Thursday, 14 September, a Save Bodlondeb campaigner received a text message from an upset relative.

The relative said a Council official, involved in co-ordinating the consultation process, told them that Bodlondeb would close at the end of September.  The relative further said that the official could not tell her where her Mother would be placed.

A representative of the Save Bodlondeb Steering Group contacted a member of the Home’s management team, who declined to comment, saying “I can’t tell you, I’m not even having this conversation with you.”

A spokesperson for the campaign told The Herald: “A more senior Council official would only commit to the Home operating until the end of the consultation period, refusing to comment on any other timescale for its operation and blaming press coverage of the proposed closure for causing residents distress”

The Save Bodlondeb Campaign understands that four residents have been relocated in the past twenty four hours, two are due to be relocated today (Friday) and that assessments are planned and ongoing for the remaining residents.

This unconfirmed information was corroborated by upset relatives who spoke to the picket, formed in response to these revelations, outside Bodlondeb. Relatives spoke of staff and residents alike being in tears by this sudden turn of events.

Commenting on this, Save Bodlondeb campaigner Dinah Mulholland said:

“If this is the case, it is further proof of Ceredigion Council’s arrogant expediency.

“The families are naturally extremely upset and the rumour that the home is to close before the consultation period is over, if proved true, shows once and for all what a sham this consultation is. I have advised the Steering Group to seek legal advice on whether Ceredigion Council’s actions compromise the legality of their consultation process.

“And I say to the Council – do not underestimate the strength of feeling about Bodlondeb and our other publicly owned residential care homes in Ceredigion. We will fight for them all.”

The small Picket, mounted outside Bodlondeb at extremely short notice by Ceredigion People’s Alliance, as part of the Save Bodlondeb Campaign, intends to return each day, to peacefully display ‘Save Bodlondeb’ placards, until this matter is resolved

A spokesperson for Ceredigion County Council responded: ‘We wish to reassure residents, their families and the wider community, that Bodlondeb Residential Care Home is operating as normal.

‘Residents’ needs can and do change and this has been the case in recent weeks for a small number of residents. As part of the on-going care and assessment process any changes in residents’ care needs are regularly reviewed and monitored.

‘As a result there has been a requirement for significant increased staffing support to ensure that residents’ needs are being safely met. This has put extra pressure on the staff group in Bodlondeb. Staffing levels are continuously being reviewed and the appropriate levels of support that residents require is monitored and responded to on a daily basis.

‘We are aware that some residents are considering other registered homes due to their own personal choice and other residents require alternative care provision due to their assessed need. Clearly we will support and ensure that the relevant professionals from within the Council and across partner organisations are available to support the residents and their families on an individual basis.

‘All options are considered and decisions taken in consultation with residents and their families. Where necessary and appropriate Independent Advocates and Independent Mental Capacity Advocates (IMCA) have been commissioned to independently support residents during the assessment and decision making process.

‘Where alternative care options are being actively considered for residents at this time, we have fully engaged and communicated with the families and the IMCA service.

‘Our priority is to ensure the safety and wellbeing of those residing at Bodlondeb and that our staff are supported to deliver the care required in a safe environment. We are extremely grateful to the staff for the dedication they continue to show in delivering care to our residents.

‘The consultation process continues and we encourage all members of the community to engage in this very important activity. As soon as the consultation process ends – on Monday, September 25, 2017 – the responses will need to be evaluated and a report prepared and presented to Cabinet to consider the options and come to a decision’.

A spokesperson for the council said: “Councillor Catherine Hughes, Portfolio Cabinet Member emphasised and reminded everyone that Bodlondeb Residential Care home will remain open as present until such time as the matter is considered and decided upon by the Council’s Cabinet. The Consultation period ends on 25 September 2017. There will follow an evaluation of the consultation responses and thereafter a report will be presented to the Cabinet who will consider the options and only then a decision will be made as to the future of Bodlondeb Residential Care home.”

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