This speech was given as part of the Backbench Business Debate on Post Office Closures on 25 April 2017.
Mr Richard Bacon (South Norfolk) (Con): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) on securing the debate.
I would like to raise the case of Diss Crown post office in my constituency, which is at the heart of the marketplace in Diss. In that geographically central area of Diss, 10,000 local residents—more than twice the number of people on the electoral role for the area at the time—turned up to welcome the Royal Anglian Regiment—the Vikings—home after its tours in Afghanistan and Iraq.
The post office is very much at the heart of the community. In particular, it is not only at the heart of Diss, but it will be at the centre of the regenerated Diss following the newly reinvigorated Diss heritage triangle project. That £3-million regeneration that includes £1.65 million from the Heritage Lottery Fund. Part of the scheme will relocate some of the town’s facilities, including the tourist information office, further north towards the centre, away from the supermarkets on the fringes of the town. The proposal to close the Diss Crown post office cuts completely against that project.
WH Smith has expressed an interest in taking on the franchise, but the WH Smith branch in Diss must be one of the smallest in the country. It is up some very narrow steps through a narrow door. In fact, there are two narrow doors either side of the shop window, but they are not in the remotest bit suitable for disabled access and nothing that could be done would make a serious difference, because the footprint of the store is very small. My local district council, South Norfolk Council, has invested £400,000 of council tax payers’ money in the heritage triangle project. Indeed, paragraph 2.32 of the South Norfolk local plan refers to the need to protect primary shopping centres, including the Diss heritage triangle.
The proposal to transfer the post office further south to the WH Smith branch would, apart from the inaccessibility problems, put it on the wrong side of town. That would be to the clear detriment of public investment in restoring the old town centre. It would also mean that many public events, such as the welcome home parade to which I referred and the annual Remembrance Day parade, would, instead of taking place against the background of a heavily used, vibrant public building—as other Members have said, it is surprising that it is not possible for such branches to be profitable, and I find it almost impossible to believe that it is not—take place against the background of a closed, redundant, empty building, since there is no word on what Post Office Counters would do with it. In the case of Diss, it would have a damaging effect by counteracting significant public investment in a project that aims to revive Diss town centre.
The Post Office’s current proposal is to relocate the branch to WH Smith, which are the wrong premises in the wrong place. That goes against the trend of local public investment aimed at securing regeneration in one of our finest market towns, which has some of the oldest town records anywhere in the country. Diss could and should be a flagship example of the regeneration of our market towns, with the successful Crown post office at its heart.
I hope the Minister will take these points to the Post Office. She should explain not only that we want a much more commercial and proactive approach, as my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham said, but that there are certain Crown post offices where the proposals are wholly unsuitable. We need and deserve something better.