Rural North to suffer in cull of post offices

Dozens of post offices in the North-East could shut after the Government confirmed that a national mass closure programme will go ahead.

The Post Office at West Denton in Newcastle

Dozens of post offices in the North-East could shut after the Government confirmed that a national mass closure programme will go ahead.

Rural parts of Northumberland and County Durham could be among the worst hit by the decision to close 2,500 post offices nationally, although some urban ones are expected to shut too.

Industry insiders said 20 or more offices could go in Northumberland and Tyneside alone and the National Federation of SubPostmasters (NFSP) said one in five would close nationally, with rural areas likely to bear the brunt.

The region has almost 600 post offices, roughly split evenly between rural and urban, but closures could start in the summer as part of an 18-month programme, with final decisions taken by the Post Office.

Berwick Liberal Democrat MP Alan Beith said it was outrageous the Government had ignored local concerns by pressing ahead with closures despite 12 post offices shutting in his constituency alone since 1999.

"We cannot afford to see more of these valuable local resources closed. Along with many local people, I have been campaigning against the Government's post office closure plans and will now be stepping up the fight once again."

Hexham Conservative MP Peter Atkinson said post offices played a vital role in rural areas and warned sub-post masters now faced more uncertainty.

He also hit out at the "little effort" made by ministers to help post offices develop, suggesting they could be allowed to take additional post other than the Royal Mail's and councils encouraged to use them as contact points for services.

NFSP branch secretary in Northumberland and Tyneside, Denis Richards, said post offices had been hit by the Government's decision to pay benefits into bank accounts and losing the right to sell television licences.

He called on the Post Office to develop new products and the Government to stop taking business away. The "great fear" was of more closures in future.

Bishop Auckland Labour MP Helen Goodman said she had submitted evidence to the Department of Trade and Industry about the needs of rural areas and expressed disappointment at the news.

"I think we do need to examine every single case with great care. I shall certainly be defending the post offices in my constituency."

Trade and Industry Secretary Alistair Darling said ministers were determined to maintain a national network, but losses were unsustainable at almost £4m a week.

The Government pledged to guarantee "reasonable access" in urban and rural areas with additional protection for more deprived urban areas and some remote rural areas, with another £1.7bn being used to support the network to 2011.

Ministers have insisted 95% of people must be within six miles of a post office, which could benefit countryside around Hexham - although it may mean mobile stations, relocation of branches or even part-time offices in pubs. A compensation package will be available for Post Office staff wanting to quit.

Alan Duncan, Tory trade spokesman and shadow minister for Tyneside, said: "The Government has still not said which post offices will close, but figures obtained by the Conservatives show that the North-East could be hit hard.

"Estimates suggest that there could be 19 branch closures in the Durham area, six cuts in Middlesbrough, five in Stockton and even 16 in Tyneside."

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