ON THE MORNING of Wednesday (Oct 19), all those people in Aberystwyth and Ceredigion who responded to PO Ltd’s consultation on ‘changes we were looking to make to your local Post Office’ received the decision.
In the event, PO Ltd ignored the strength of local objections and decided to go ahead with moving the Crown Post Office in Aberystwyth from Great Darkgate Street to within WHSmith on Terrace Road. For many people, this decision came as a shock and undermined any faith they had in the legitimacy of public consultation.
The lengthy letter, signed by Roger Gale, General Manager – Crown and WHSmith Network, acknowledges: “During the public consultation period we received 91 individual representations from customers and local representatives. A petition was also received along with 582 campaign cards and we were made aware of the protest against the relocation that took place. We also held a customer forum to talk about our plans and answer questions. In addition, the local MP chaired a public meeting.”
The letter attempts to address major concerns about ‘the size and capacity of the proposed new premises to cope with additional customers; accessibility into and within the proposed new premises, especially for disabled customers and car parking availability. We were also asked about the Welsh language provision at the new branch’.
With respect to space, PO Ltd make the bland assertion that: “When designing the branch, we will ensure there is adequate space within the WHSmith store to manage customer demand and have space for Post Office customers. This has been considered as part of the franchise planning for the branch.”
There is a conspicuous lack of detail on how the WHSmith premises will suddenly perform the spatial miracle of Dr Who’s Tardis. On access and parking, the letter simply concludes: “We have carefully considered ease of access to the new location and in conclusion, we remain satisfied that customers in Aberystwyth will continue to have good access to Post Office services.” Again, no substantive response to public concerns. PO Ltd also commit that: “Prior to the move, we’ll also be contacting local disability groups to take them through the layout of the new branch.” With respect to Welsh language provision, respondents to the consultation are assured that: “Externally, the store front will include clear bilingual Post Office signage and an opening hours board.” PO Ltd also promise that ‘Welsh speaking staff will be in branch to assist customers’.
SAME OLD, SAME OLD
It is the defining feature of PO Ltd’s decision that nothing has changed since the process of public consultation began: Their story remains exactly the same as it was at the outset. This has left a bitter taste in many mouths and led people to question the credibility of the consultation process, not to mention what now seems like the waste of time and money. PO Ltd’s letter promises that: “The same wide range of products and services will be available, including materials in Welsh. However, retaining the UKVI Biometric Enrolment Service at the new branch will be subject to Home Office checks and validation. We anticipate that there may be a short interruption to the availability of this service at the new location due to this; however, we will work with WHSmith and UK Border Agency to do all we can to reduce the length of time this service will be unavailable.” Once again, nothing has changed with respect to the issue of the UKVI Biometric Enrolment Service. This, despite its importance to a town with vital international connections, not least via the university, having been stressed by many respondents, including, in the strongest possible terms, Ceredigion MP Mark Williams.
On the vexed issue of the war memorial in the Great Darkgate Street premises dedicated to General Post Office workers, PO Ltd reiterated the commitment they have made throughout the so-called consultation process, without any tangible progress having been made: “We are working with Royal Mail to identify the most appropriate place to relocate the memorial so that members of the public can continue to pay their respects to those of our colleagues who sacrificed their lives.
“Please be reassured that we fully recognise the importance and significance of this war memorial and, once agreed, the relocation will be handled with due and proper care and sensitivity, including a re-dedication ceremony.”
‘A DONE DEAL’
Ceredigion Liberal Democrat MP Mark Williams has condemned the decision of PO Ltd to relocate the Post Office from its historic Great Darkgate Street site to WHSmith on Terrace Road. Mark Williams told The Herald: “Despite huge opposition to this plan, two well-attended public meetings, and a large number of representations, the Post Office have ploughed on regardless. It is hard to conclude anything other than the fact that the outcome was a done deal, regardless of the consultation. I remain concerned about the implications of this on our hard-working staff and the size and capacity of the new Post Office. We in Aberystwyth know just how congested the WHSmith shop can get, and indeed the narrow pavement outside.
“The questions I have raised with the Post Office remain unresolved; I am unclear what discussions the Post Office have had with the local branch of the Royal British Legion in regards to the location of the Post Office’s War Memorial. Whilst Post Office Ltd tell us that the new Post Office will retain a UK Visas and Immigration Biometric Enrolment Service, critically important for a university town such as Aberystwyth, they then tell us there will be an interruption in the provision of that service. Presumably, they think it is acceptable for my constituents to have to access the service in Port Talbot or Shrewsbury – at one of the last remaining Crown Post Offices. I remain very disappointed that Post Office Ltd have failed to listen to hundreds of representations from the people of Ceredigion, Aberystwyth, and their elected representatives.”
Ceredigion AM Elin Jones told The Herald: “I’m disappointed to hear that the Post Office has decided to move its branch in Aberystwyth to the WHSmith store. I, along with many people, have made my views known to the Post Office that I would much rather that it stayed at its current location on Great Darkgate Street. I will now be watching to see that all services are retained during the move, and that the residents of Aberystwyth continue to receive the high standard of service that is required from their local Post Office.”
The Herald has been following the campaign to save Aberystwyth Post Office closely since back in April, giving voice to community concerns about the privatisation of public services through the backdoor. The result of the public consultation, into which so much effort has been put by local campaigners, comes as severe blow. Although government and corporations riding rough shod over people’s concerns is logically what citizens have come to expect, they strive to retain a vestige of hope in processes that represent themselves as democratic. One of the Save Aberystwyth Post Office campaigners, Rachel Seabrook, commented that PO Ltd’s decision ‘shows up the consultation for the sham we knew it to be. They say that feedback was taken into account, but they clearly paid no heed to the public’s desire to keep the Post Office where it is, as a public service’.
Linda Ingram commented: “Obviously they have NOT taken account of comments from the public in Ceredigion.
“As far as they were concerned, it was a foregone conclusion. WHSmith is being bailed out by the taxpayer. Disgraceful!”
On Save Aberystwyth Post Office’s Facebook page, Morgan Commins posted: “Feeling disgusted and despondent.”
Roger Gale concludes his letter: “I’m satisfied that customer needs will be adequately met. Alongside this, we’ll monitor customer usage at the branch following the move and will work with WHSmith to make sure service standards are maintained.”
The people of Aberystwyth must now be wondering exactly what the point of such monitoring will be when public opinion clearly makes no difference at all to PO Ltd’s decisions. The Crown Post Office on Great Darkgate Street will close at 5.30pm on November 23. The new branch in WHSmith will open at 9am the following day.