Fears have been raised over the sustainability of rural communities as it emerges nearly 40 per cent of all Post Offices in Yorkshire have been shut down since the year 2000.
The figures, revealed in an investigation by The Yorkshire Post, have sparked concerns over the impact on already hard-hit rural communities.
The Post Office plays a part in people’s lives. It becomes a focal point in the heart of the communityRichard Titterington, CWU
Coupled with on-going cuts to bus subsidies, the loss of such a vital service can only spell out the demise of the traditional village, campaigners have warned.
“This is a tragedy,” said Mark Baker, branch secretary for the Postmasters’ Communication Workers Union (CWU).
“Post Offices in rural communities are usually the only shop around. If that’s gone, the community is completely isolated.
“It’s the disadvantaged that are losing out if a Post Office is lost. Their closure completely marginalises rural communities.”
The Post investigation, based on Freedom of Information requests to the Post Office, found that 614 branches - 39 per cent - have been closed in Yorkshire.
Nationwide, that figure is 6,750 Post Offices - 37 per cent - which have been shut down since the start of the millennium.
Rural Post Offices in Yorkshire have been hit slightly harder than the national average, with 36 per cent closing compared to 32 per cent in the UK.
While the majority were shut in the two branch closure programs between 2002 and 2009, the figures show, their declining numbers are continuing to fall.
In recent months Post Offices have closed in Helmsley, despite a vocal public campaign, and in Staithes, despite concerns from villagers.
It has also been announced that further branches are to be shut in Wakefield and Halifax next week, while the future of another branch, in Headingley in Leeds, remains uncertain.
The impact, say countryside campaigners, is devastating.
“Rural Post Offices are a vital part of village life,” said Leah Swain, chief officer at Rural Action Yorkshire.
“With more banks shutting rural branches, Post Offices provide a vital replacement banking service for individuals and businesses.
“Isolation and loneliness is growing in rural areas and removing face to face services such as Post Offices is exacerbating the issue. We would like to see more corporate support from the Post Office to look at alternative solutions that complement this approach in rural areas.”
The Post Office, when approached by The Yorkshire Post, argues that it is at its most stable for years.
Changes to the network, including the transformation of many branches to a ‘new model’, is about ensuring it can remain on the high street for generations to come.
“We are taking the right actions to ensure that Post Office branches thrive for future generations,” a spokesman said. “We halved our losses in 2015/16 and are making steady progress in ensuring our business is simpler to run, reducing costs to the taxpayer whilst at the same time modernising our network of over 11,500 branches.”
The Post Office has said it is committed to sustaining its existing network, adding that its modernisation plans have added 200,000 extra opening hours in recent years.
Thousands have been “transformed”, with 4,000 open seven days a week, leading to shorter queues as people use Post Offices outside office hours, said the organisation.
“Through modernising we are making it better for customers, providing unprecedented ease of access to our services through longer opening hours,” the spokesman said.
“We just feel let down”
A rural community in North Yorkshire, faced with the loss of its post office in May, fought a fierce battle to save its services.
Helmsley residents rallied to the cause when the announcement came last winter, setting up public meetings, letters and protests.
But it wasn’t to be.
Despite their efforts, and calls to be heard, the Post Office decided it wasn’t viable to continue.
“This is just another loss of our rural services,” said Carolyn Frank, chairman of Helmsley in Business.
“We feel very let down.”
Miss Frank, who runs her own business in the town, was one of those who fronted the campaign.
The Post Office had announced a consultation over the future of the Helmsley branch at the end of last year. Straight away, there was outcry.
Public meetings in January drew hundreds of people, in a town with a population of around 1,500.
The Helmsley in Business Group launched a letter writing campaign, determined to show just how much the Post Office meant to this community.
And there was anger, from residents, as they felt their voices weren’t being heard.
“There was huge public feeling,” said Miss Frank.
“Everybody was involved.
“Genuine problems were raised; access, security, loss of services. We just weren’t listened to. That was galling.
“There’s a lack of understanding from big businesses about the needs of rural communities. Everywhere you go, people are still talking about it.”
Helmsley Post Office served 20 villages around it.
Now, villagers were told to go to Malton, 20 minutes away, for services that aren’t available at the Costcutter.
“For a pensioner, that’s not an option,” said Miss Frank.
“There’s a bus service, but it’s just not practical.
“This is another loss of our rural services.
“We lost two of our banks; the HSBC and the Natwest both closed down.
“The Post Office was given as the alternative.
“We’ve lost our banks, we’ve lost our bus services, we keep losing services one after another.
“That’s why people were so upset at losing this service.”
Ironically, Helmsley was named Britain’s best market town last year - an award sponsored by the Post Office and in recognition of it’s thriving business community.
“It’s the Post Office that’s going to lose out in the long term,” said Miss Frank.
“Businesses certainly don’t rely on the Post Office any more. It’s certainly become less viable already.”
Despite their fight, there is a pervading sense of sadness among townsfolk about the loss of this service, says Miss Frank.
She added: “We are a campaigning town.
“But usually for more positive things.
“We haven’t lost our Post Office – all the services are still there. But the community still feels let down.”
More closures on the way
Hundreds of Post Offices in Yorkshire were shut down during the two branch closure programmes between 2002 and 2009, but the decline is still ongoing.
In recent months, several have been closed with more still facing an uncertain future.
In Wakefield, the Crown Post Office branch has been under threat since January, when it was placed on a potential closure list.
Campaigners battled to save it, setting up petitions and protesting against the closure.
But their efforts were in vain and it was announced at the beginning of August that it is to close. A service counter will be opened in the nearby WHSmiths store instead.
“I’m disappointed,” said Wakefield MP Mary Creagh when the news was announced. “It’s another blow for our high street, as the Post Office helped support local businesses by bringing customers into the area.”
Halifax is also set to lose its 128-year-old Crown Post Office in coming days.
The branch is to be moved from the Grade ll listed site to the WHSmiths store, 250m away, with the last day of opening to be September 7.
“It’s a real shame because it’s a lovely old building,” said June Miller, 66, from Sowerby Bridge as a campaign was launched earlier in the year to save it.
“It’s been there for as I long as I can remember it. I remember a time when places like these were everywhere. It’ll be a sad day when it does finally close.”
Bob Miller, 68, added: “I wish the council would do something more about it. But this Government are only interested in cutting services back, like Post Offices.”
In Staithes, near Whitby, the Post Office closed in October last year as the couple running it retired.
It was put up for sale but, with no buyers, has been transferred to a service desk at a Co-operative store in the village.
“Everybody is desperately sad,” said neighbour Heather Holliday, 65, who runs a convenience store on the same street as the owners prepared to turn it into holiday lets.
“We don’t want any more holiday cottages. We want a Post Office. People won’t come to Staithes if there’s nothing to come to.”
‘More than just a village shop’
A Post Office branch is more than just a village shop, unions have said, warning that more cuts are to come.
“These figures don’t surprise me but I do feel it can only get worse,” said Mark Baker, branch secretary for the postmasters’ Communications Workers Union (CWU). “I’m not hopeful for the future. This is the end game. Once you lose this many dedicated postmasters, the Post Office will just disappear.”
Richard Titterington, CWU area representative for North East England, agrees.
“Yes, it’s a business. But the Post Office plays a part in people’s lives,” he said. “It becomes a focal point in the heart of the community. People feel that the Post Office belongs to them. It’s a part of their community. And to see a thriving Post Office makes people feel a community is thriving.
“When they try to close them down it seems to resonate. I don’t think people could have imagined this 16 years ago. It’s crept up. And it’s still going on.”