On March 30, Fleet Hargate Post Office closed. Established for 100 years opposite the Baptist Chapel, the post office then moved nearer the centre of the village before settling into a row of terraced cottages on the opposite side of Old Main Road.
This was convenient for elderly residents, especially those living in 32 sheltered bungalows nearby. A five-minute walk every morning for the daily paper gave an opportunity for gentle exercise in fresh air and the chance of a chat with others on the way.
Notices inside the post office door provided information on events and local contacts for services: missing pets, ironing boards, shoes, plumbers, gardeners, you name it, everything bought and sold courtesy of the post office.
Nobody expected to get their weekly shop at the post office, but it was a meeting place for many and a place to pick up the parish news as well as emergency food supplies and last-minute greetings cards. It was also handy for bus passengers, who could call in on the way to the bus stop. Outlying villages without post offices supplied many more customers, who could park outside. Fleet Post Office was a focal point for residents of a local care home for learning disabled who enjoyed their daily stroll to buy sweets, no roads to cross and friendly faces to greet them. It was possibly the high point of their day. Where do they go now?
When the local branch of NatWest closed, its customers were advised to use the post office as a stopgap. Now this facility has gone. Notices informing us of the proposed move of our post office to Gedney Chestnut Farm shop pre-empted the so-called ‘public consultation’ that was supposed to take place. Leaflets describing the myriad benefits of the move referred to ‘great services at your new branch’, enumerating more than 170 products and services. So far, the new post office offers four services, but accepting cheques for utility bills is not one of them. Nor does it sell daily or local papers. It is very unlikely that notices of people and events affecting Fleet will be on view at Gedney. And far from being ‘at the centre’ of the village, Chestnut Farm shop is even further from the centre of Gedney than from the centre of Fleet. Moreover, there are no sheltered bungalows or care homes in Gedney village.
The Code of Conduct covering this travesty refers to ‘local factors, such as the availability of public transport’ and that the situation will be discussed with ‘the relevant local authority’. If any of those responsible ever used the 505 Spalding to King’s Lynn bus, they would know public transport is unreliable and it could take over an hour to buy a stamp.
With what ‘relevant authority’ was this discussed? Surely not the Fleet Parish Council, which stated its objection, I understand. Since few councillors, parish or district, use public transport, they are unlikely to be aware of these issues.
The isolation and loneliness of old people have been increased by this anti-social move by Post Office Ltd. Fleet has no village hall and only one pub left. Those without close families will be left to their own solitary devices, with the risk of dementia always present. Life in rural areas is less and less likely to appeal to retirees if they can see the bleakness ahead, putting more pressure on urban developments and depleting the countryside.
Under the Code, the reasons for the move are supposed to have been made clear. Some customers were told the reason was the Fleet Post Office shop’s lack of profitability. But how could it expect to compete with Tesco or even the Co-op? Surely the main point of a post office is a postal service, not groceries? We are advised in the Code of Practice that ‘within a period between four and eight weeks after opening’ a ‘customer engagement’ exercise will ask for comments on the new arrangement. Leaflets will be available over a two- week period. But since the move has already been made, it is hard to see what can be done to reverse it. The owner of the building where Fleet Post Office was sited told me it could have been sold had it remained as a post office. Someone obviously thought it was a good proposition. So why didn’t they have the chance to prove it?
Today I searched the Post Office Ltd website for a telephone number for the new post office at Gedney. The address was Topsgate, Gedney, but no number was given. How many people would know to look under Chestnut Farm? I rang their number and asked if they had leaflets about the second consultation. “Sorry, I’ve got customers waiting,” came the reply.