If you are a fan of period dramas you may have seen the Wiltshire village of Lacock before. It was recently used as the set for BBC1’s Cranford Chronicles, starring Dame Judi Dench, and regularly hosts film and television crews.
National Trust-owned Lacock lies 3.5 miles outside Chippenham and any visitor cannot help but be impressed by its medieval century half-timber houses, jail and abbey.
To the untrained eye the village seems untouched by the outside world. But decisions in Whitehall mean that after more than a century of existence one of the hubs of its community – the village post office, is now set to close.
Weekly post office customer numbers are four million lower than two years ago. In 2006, the government and Post Office Ltd began consulting on proposals to cut the number of loss making branches and put the network on a firm financial footing. Ministers decided that up to 2,500 branches would need to be closed between October 2007 and July 2008, on a compulsory compensated basis. The plan was for about 500, such as the post office in Lacock, to be replaced with an outreach service.
So far about 700 branches have been shut down – with about 100 of these becoming outreach services. These can take three forms: a mobile service, where a mobile van regularly visits communities a partner service, where a partner such as a local shop or pub provides services on behalf of the post office from its own building or a hosted service where the subpostmaster visits local premises such as a shop or church.
Lacock post office was selected for closure in December. It had a brief reprieve in February when Postwatch, the post office watchdog, asked Post Office Ltd to review the decision but it is now set to close. It is not yet clear which outreach service will replace it.
The first records of a post office in Lacock date back to 1842 and Emma Hands, its current subpostmistress, says its closure will have a devastating effect on the community. This is particularly the case for the elderly residents as many don’t have bank accounts, instead opting for a post office account from which to draw their pension.
“I have a lot of customers who don’t have bank accounts. You can argue that everyone should have one but when you are 82 why should you?” says Hands.
Even if people do decide to set up bank accounts there is no bank in the village and bus services to Melksham and Chippenham, the nearest towns, are infrequent and inaccessible to many older people. A significant number of older residents also rely on the post office to pay their bills as they don’t like using direct debits.
Winnifred Drewett, 82, lives in Bowden Hill, near Lacock: “I’m 82 going on 83 and I haven’t got any transport. The post office is my life line. I don’t have a bank account. I have never had one. I pay all of my bills here as well as keeping up with what’s going on. [When the post office closes] it’s going to be a nightmare because if I open a bank account how am I going to get there?” she says.
Rita Sartain, 77, was born in a house over the road from where she now lives. She left Lacock before returning 16 years ago. Sartain vividly remembers a time when cows used to make their way down the high street rather than cars and coachloads of American tourists. Five years ago, Lacock’s doctor’s surgery was shut down and Sartain sees the post office’s closure as the life blood being further sucked out of the village.
“I visit the post office regularly. To me now it’s like a bereavement taking this away. It’s the most awful thing that’s ever happened to this village. It’s a life line.”
Apart from a bakery, the village shop attached to the post office is the only place to purchase groceries in Lacock. When the post office goes, the shop in its current format, will also have to shut down as it will no longer be economically viable.
Sartain doesn’t want to have to travel and relies on the shop for her basics. “If they shut the shop down, they might as well shut the village down. I wouldn’t be able to get any papers, any milk, anything,” she says.
Lacock’s post office is just one of thousands considered to be financially unviable. The network’s losses rose from about £2m a week in 2005 to almost £4m a week last year. A Post Office Ltd spokesperson said that while it sympathises with the concerns of its customers and individual subpostmasters, action had to be taken to stem its losses and make the network sustainable.
Hands understands that as a privatised company Post Office Ltd needs some branches to make profits, but for her it should be a social service. She says Lacock’s post office serves a social function, which is difficult to put a financial value on, and that she inquires about regular customers if they don’t come in when expected.
“It should go back into the hands of the tax payer and the government because I feel we provide a social service. If we weren’t here some other professional would have to take up that slack or people would fall through the net. I have customers who can’t read and write who trust me to do their lists for them and fill in their forms,” she says.
Hands is not alone in this view. Essex Council also understands the social function of local post offices. So much so that it is in talks with Post Office Ltd about taking over up to 32 post offices earmarked for closure across the county.
Leader of the council, Lord Hanningfield, says that the local authority spends large sums on caring for older people and investing in the post offices is an extension of this. Under the plans the council aims for each branch to become financially self-sufficient, as far as possible, over the next three years.
“A lot of older people don’t want to sit at home, they like to go out and do something and a local post office is a community service in many waysPeople might not need care because they go out in the day and have that focus,” he says.
About 50 local authorities have contacted Essex about taking over post offices. Back in Lacock a final decision is pending but Wiltshire Council seems unlikely to follow Essex’s lead.
Soon Lacock’s post office will shut its doors for good – ending 166 years of history and an era for many of its residents.
Find out about your post offices in your area
More information on the closure programme and what you can do
Help the Aged’s campaigning pack against closures
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This article appeared in the 24 April issue under the headline “No longer at this address”