Smiling bravely The sell-off one year on. By Rod Webb

As Britain madly shops in the dark of winter streets, illuminated shop windows lure us in with music and bright lights. Christmas is nearly here again with all its many rituals and associations. But one association, the post office, is rapidly fading from our consciousness. It used to be such a busy place at Christmas, with parcels and cards being sent all over the world. And as a public service, it provided that extra link in the community as people came together for the yearly festival.

Now being run as a down-graded retail franchise, the St Leonards Post Office cuts a sorry figure, gloomy inside and neglected outside – a half torn-off protest leaflet from a year ago is still stuck on the wall next to the entrance. The only bright spot is the presence of the smiling and helpful counter staff, although there are rarely enough of them. Even when working for a low wage, staff are a major financial outlay.

Flimsy signage clings on

Campaign to save ‘the Crown’
Moves to save the St Leonards Post Office began in early 2017. The aim of the campaign was to keep the Crown status, i.e. public ownership, rather than selling it off in a franchise deal. The campaign started with high hopes, but it quickly became clear that Post Office Ltd, the government-owned company that runs counter services, were picking off Crown post offices all over the country and had honed their strategy to a fine art, using obfuscation and toothless public consultations to damp down the inevitable local protest that sprang up.

In October, six months in, the campaign was buoyed up by the large turnout at a public meeting in the Isabel Blackman Centre. Attendees included local councillors and our local MP, Amber Rudd, as well as trade union representatives and representatives of campaigns in other towns. The event was covered not only by the local press but also by More Radio, BBC Radio Sussex and BBC TV South East. At this meeting, Council leader Peter Chowney offered to have Hastings Borough Council buy the freehold of the post office and let the building to a local business to be run in conjunction with post office services. The business would benefit from the additional footfall post office customers bring and the post office would have some local autonomy restored – albeit not in the form of a Crown post office, the preferred option. This move was quickly endorsed by Amber Rudd and raised hopes not only for the future of the post office, but also for the regeneration of the lower part of London Road.

Erica Smith between  Peter Chowney and Amber Rudd at a public meeting

Potent Solutions not the solution
Soon after this, the Post Office’s preferred candidate for the franchise pulled out after the local community threatened to boycott his proposal of yet another newsagents. At this point, things appeared all set for the Crown status to continue until a suitable franchisee was found. Unfortunately, Post Office Ltd had other plans and in November announced that the franchise would be offered as a ‘temporary’ arrangement to a company called Potent Solutions while a more permanent solution was sought. Even Private Eye could see this wasn’t a good move for St Leonards. In an article for the Christmas edition, entitled It’s Counter Productive, they commented on Potent Solutions as follows:

“As any old postmaster will testify, the No 1 priority is to balance the books at the end of the day. Yet down on the south coast in St Leonards-on-Sea, the Post Office has handed its Crown office to an operator incapable of accurately counting its own pennies. … A quick check shows that Potent Solutions has filed its accounts at Companies House late and only after being threatened with being struck off. On both occasions it has then had to amend its figures to the tune of hundreds of thousands of pounds and submit revised accounts. Among its errors was the ultimate postie blunder of showing incorrect cash totals. How our masters approved this deal is beyond not just the Save St Leonards Crown Post Office campaign but anyone who’s ever sold a stamp.”

Plan B
Nevertheless, the Crown status was taken away in January 2018. But plan B was still on the table. As Potent Solutions was just a temporary solution, something more permanent was sought, with the council buying the freehold and partnering with a good local business the next best option. Unfortunately, it quickly became clear that Post Office Ltd would once again be the main stumbling block as they had to be involved with any deal. The purchase of the freehold could not go ahead without a viable business franchise first being sanctioned by them.

Behind the scenes there have been attempts to find the ideal business, one that would both be commercially viable and bring benefits to the community. There have been all sorts of suggestions as well as interest from a variety of businesses ranging from a wholefood shop to a community-led business combined with a rooftop bar. Unfortunately, none has so far gone ahead, whether because it was the wrong time for a business to expand, the building not being the right fit, or because the business had reservations about combining with a post office.

The future
The latest possibility is a home for the increasing number of home-based craft traders in St. Leonards. This would be an ideal space for a group of such small businesses to get together as a collective; small businesses would thrive on the passing trade that a post office could lure in. There are already a number of business that include workshop space and retail and online trading, such as St Leonards Modern Goods in Norman Road or Little Mashers in Kings Road. A business collective would be a variation on this theme, with the workshop at home, the public face of the business in the post office and online trading facilitated by the post office – just a few metres away.

Interest has already been shown in the scheme; if this or any other idea for the post office appeals to you, the person to contact is Peter Chowney, leader of Hastings Borough Council.

ALL PICTURES: Rod Webb


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