Hammered in Hammersmith

In mid May, I attended my first meeting as Chairman of the Greater London Region of Postwatch to hear protests against the proposed conversion of a main post office into a franchised operation. I blogged about this under the heading “Air red over Golders Green”. In the event, negotiations with the proposed franchisee – a local retailer – fell through and the conversion has not taken place.
This week, I had a second such experience when I was asked to speak for Postwatch at a protest meeting in Hammersmith Town Hall about the proposal by Post Office Limited to convert its main office in The Broadway to a franchised office inside W H Smith in the Kings Mall. Again I had a tough time as you can read from my report.

Hammersmith protest meeting: 20 September 2006
The Post Offcoe commenced its standard six-week consultation on issues arising from the conversion on 27 June (the decision to convert is not a matter for consultation but a commercial decision by the Post Office). On 26 July, together with colleagues from the Greater London Regional Committee of Postwatch, I visited the location of the current main office and the location of the proposed franchised operation in W H Smith. The consultation closed on 8 August. No representations were made to Postwatch on the proposal.
Therefore the protest meeting at Hammersmith Town hall on 20 September was an odd occasion. The consultation period was over and the Post Office had written to me on 14 August confirming the arrangements. The newly Conservative -controlled Hammersmith Council – which organised the meeting – had made no representations to the Post Office or to Postwatch.
The meeting was chaired by the Conservative leader of the Council Stephen Greenhalgh. The top table speeches of opposition to the proposal came from Bryan Naylor of the Better Government Consultative Forum, Sylvia Francis of the Third Age Foundation, and Stephen Cowan of Hammersmith Council. Unusually there was no speaker or presence from the Communications Workers Union. There were lots of local politicians. As well as those already mentioned, three councillors and one former councillor spoke from the floor. A letter from the local MP, the Conservative Greg Hands, was read out and another MP, the Labour Andrew Slaughter, spoke from the floor.
The main arguments in opposition were familiar ones. People simply did not believe that the local post office was running at a loss and insisted that the queues in the office made it obvious that it was a profitable operation. Everyone emphasized the wonderful location of the current post office in the second busiest interchange in London and insisted that the proposed location In W H Smith – five minutes down the road in a shopping mall surrounded by Sainsbury’s, Marks & Spencers, and various banks and building societies – was totally unsuitable and inaccessible.
I had a tough message to deliver. I pointed out thet the post office network is losing £50M a year, that almost 8,000 offices have closed since the early 1980s, and that the alternative to a franchising operation might well be closure. I explained that often, when franchising was proposed, local residents complained that the proposed franchisee was someone they did not know and could not be sure was financially viable and in it for the long term. None of the arguments apply to W H Smith which is a well-known and well-resourced consumer brand.
The speaker for the Post Office was Byron Roberts and he was accompanied by his colleague Melanie Corfield. He made a lot of effective points and gave many reassurances, but predictably he was met by a lot of scepticism and not a little anger. He insisted that the current post office in Hammersmith Broadway is making a loss and that the Post Office counters business as a whole lost £111M last year. He explained that the loss of the the BBC licence fee contract to Paypoint was a clear indication of the need for the business to lower its costs if it was to remain competitive. He gave more detail of the configuration of the new office and of the training of the W H Smith staff, but again – as at Golders Green – there were no plans or pictures to show how the new arrangements would look.
So where do we go from here? The protesters – led by the Conservative Council – are organising a petition and already have around 1,000 signatures.They want to present it to Parliament for some reason, but I suggested that they might like to present it to the Deputy Prime Minister since he is chairing a Cabinet Committee (MISC 33) examining the future role, size and funding of the post office network. Meanwhile W H Smith at Hammersmith will open its post office franchise on 19 October.