Post Office cuts hit OAPs

Emily Dennis Pensioners in East Anglia are having to depend on family and friends to access their local post office after swingeing cuts hit rural communities.

Emily Dennis

Pensioners in East Anglia are having to depend on family and friends to access their local post office after swingeing cuts hit rural communities.

Those living in isolated villages have been left particularly badly hit following the Post Office's swathe of branch closures under tough cost-cutting measures last year.

It comes as a new government report revealed that as many as five million people struggle to get to their local post office.

The report by the Department for Communities and Local Government found that one in 10 households - equating to five million people in England - had problems accessing their local branch.

Figures in the Survey of English Housing show the proportion of people reporting difficulties getting to a post office increased from 5pc in 1997, when Labour came into power, to 10pc in 2007-08.

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Last year the Post Office closed 50 branches in Norfolk as part of its controversial Network Change programme to shut 2,500 outlets nationwide.

Pensioners' groups have described post offices as a “lifeline” for older people and have expressed concern at the figures.

Norman Huke, from the Norfolk and Norwich Pensioners' Association, said that its members had found ways to overcome difficulties in accessing post office services, with some relying on friends and family for help.

He said: “This is mainly a problem in rural areas. In some villages it means a bus trip, depending on whether there is a bus. A lot of them do manage. They perhaps send a daughter along. They find methods of getting it done, someway or another they live with it. But it is a problem - there is no doubt about it.”

The group's president Edith Pocock echoed Mr Huke's comments and added: “Not all elderly people have the luxury of having friends or family nearby who can help. If they have to get a bus into a village they will probably be stuck there for two or three hours, probably even longer, then it is like a job to get your pension. They have to manage, there is no alternative.”

Andrew Harrop, head of public policy at Age Concern and Help the Aged, said: “The increased difficulty in accessing post offices is a matter of concern for us as many older people rely on them heavily for a variety of services.

“More worryingly, the recent spate of post office closures is bound to reduce the service's accessibility even further.

“Our research shows that post offices are a real lifeline for older people, who use them as a 'one-stop shop' to access their pension and benefits, pay their bills, get advice and information, as well as meet and socialise with others.”

Peter Smith, development officer at Norfolk Rural Community Council, said that communities where there have been post office closures have been hit hard.

“The impact, where there has been a closure, certainly for the short term, has been very high,” he said.

“A lot of those closures were within other businesses like shops or pubs. In shops, the impact on business has been very high indeed. What has happened is that the footfall going into the post office was also buying bread and eggs etc. Now that footfall has decreased there has been an impact on the local economy.”

He said that people had to accept there would be change, but added that it was those with the greatest need who are most likely to be left at a disadvantage.

“Of the 10pc who have difficulty in getting access, I bet the majority of them are those with the greatest need who do not have support from friends and neighbours,” he said.

Mr Smith also said that the figures did not necessarily paint a gloomy picture. “My immediate reaction is that this means 90pc can reach their local post office,” he said.

“We have been at the forefront of the post office situation in terms of fighting and helping. Norfolk had a lower proportion of closures than any other county, so Norfolk relative to other areas did not do that badly.”

A Post Office spokesman said that its network of post offices meets the access criteria set by government. She added that a current funding package agreed by the government is in place until 2011. She could not speculate on the situation beyond 2011 and said that any further review would be a matter for the government.