local council

How to close a much loved Post Office without a public backlash

If you live in East Molesey you may have noticed that the post office in Walton Road has suddenly closed. I was there shortly after the closure, browsing the newly refurbished display racks and witnessed a number of disappointed people being turned away.  It was a busy post office and one I had come to rely upon, so why the sudden closure?  Rumour has it that it was forced to close following an unfavourable audit. Certainly, the fact that the shop had recently undergone a style makeover would suggest that Meera was not intending to depart so quickly.  There seemed to be an expectation that a new postmaster would take over from the sign on the door, but there is no guarantee and the good folk of Molesey will have to travel to Hurst Park Tesco for the next nearest counter service.

Post Office Counters is the only part of the former General Post Office (GPO) not to be privatised in 2013. Royal Mail and Parcelforce, who together made a profit of £742m in 2016, were sold off at 330p per share rising to 455p the very next day. Effectively, a cash giveaway of £1 billion to the city.  The now private mail service pays out £220 m in dividends to shareholders per annum. Money which previously went to the treasury and could have been used to pay for teachers or nurses now goes into private hands. Post Office Counters was the poor relation left behind. Not making sufficient profit to be of interest to shareholders it has limped along shedding jobs and closing branches in a deliberate ‘slash and burn’ policy according to Dave Ward, General Secretary of CWU.

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The counter service was previously funded by the profits overall and the government knew before the sell-off it could not stand alone without subsidy. But when money is the only thing that matters the government is not minded to consider the cost to the community who have come to rely upon local services. The vast majority of Crown offices have already been closed or franchised; now appearing in a corner of WH Smith or a Costcutter store.  You may feel this is of little consequence provided it is still in your local neighbourhood but should something go wrong you will have no means of recourse against these ‘private’ enterprises who will hide all data behind a veil of ‘commercial confidence’.

Under the cloak of ‘austerity’ and let’s face it more people voted to continue austerity under the Conservatives than to end austerity by voting against them, we are seeing more and more public services placed into private hands. It’s what we voted for so we shouldn’t be surprised. But we’re always taken aback when it’s our personal service which gets the chop. In Surrey we elected eleven Conservative MPs each campaigning on an austerity agenda euphemistically referred to as ‘balancing the books’ yet despite this we expect our own services to go unchanged.

Many in Surrey are in favour of public services being run by private enterprise as they are able to inject funds and bring in efficiencies.  That may be true to some extent but the fundamental difference between public and private is that private work for profit and only for profit; the shareholder is king and unprofitable services are cut. We lose democratic control of our own public services and shareholders replace the public as the primary stakeholders. Public infrastructure and assets, built up over many years is being handed over to the already wealthy and worker’s rights are diminished in the process with many forced to become ‘self-employed’ contractors and join the gig economy, which is often how the private sector saves money.

As we ‘take back control’ on a national level we are losing control of the local services many of us rely on.  Franchised or contracted out to the highest bidder, ironically many of them foreign; public money is converted into private profit.   We go about our business largely oblivious to the fact that our public space, local schools, transport systems, water, electricity, refuse collection, tennis courts and post offices are being taken from the control of democratically elected local councillors and placed into the private marketplace.

In the fullness of time we may come to realise what we have lost under this government backed asset stripping, but the dye has been cast and the old adage, ‘you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone’ may well prove true.  So what is the easiest way to close a much-used local post office without a public backlash? I really shouldn’t be so cynical.

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What the deuce! Elmbridge residents call for fair play

There has been something of a hoo-ha brewing in Elmbridge recently. Residents have taken to social media to complain about changes to public services. Smelly bins left un-emptied, was the first issue galvanising the public into complaint. Particularly annoying as this occurred during the June heat wave. Residents took to twitter to berate local councillors.

Earlier this month, Amey, the Spanish owned refuse collectors started their new £100 million joint-waste contract in Elmbridge. Due to be rolled out later in Mole Valley, Surrey Heath and Woking, the residents were promised ‘an improved rubbish and recycling collection service.’ A major advantage of the switch was the proposed £2 million saving per annum and no doubt this would have been a factor in gaining the support of Surrey County Council as the waste disposal authority.

Unfortunately, a series of teething problems left food bins festering in the heat and whole cul-de-sacs abandoned due to the difficulty of negotiating the new vehicles between parked cars. Esher and Walton Conservatives were soon onto the scandal demanding that Elmbridge council ‘get a grip on the current appalling situation’ and laying the blame squarely upon the Lib Dem/Resident Association led council:

“Conservative group leader, Cllr Tim Oliver, is clear that the current service failings smacks of poor forward planning by Amey and a failure of the RA/LD Council to hold the contractor to account.”

But wait a minute, Surrey County Council, which is Tory led were in favour of the plan and at the time of the vote (December 2016) at least 21 of the 48 Councillors were Conservative. Cllr Tim Oliver in fact chaired the meeting with Amey and closed down some pretty relevant questions from other Councillors as you can see on this webcast.

A more recent hoo-ha has been caused by the lock-up of public tennis courts and the necessity for the public to pay a yearly subscription of £36 or a £5 one-off booking fee to play on courts which were previously free. This issue even got Judy Murray riled up as evidently this is Andy Murray’s home borough. £25,000 was pledged from the Lawn Tennis Association (LTA) to help secure the sites and advertise the new charges. In good Surrey style there was soon a petition raised and a campaign organised to reverse the plan; a campaign apparently supported by Cllr Tim Oliver, Conservative group leader. Once again the accusing finger points firmly at the Lib Dem/Resident Association administration, totally ignoring the fact that the decision was passed unanimously by all 48 Elmbridge councillors, including Cllr Oliver.

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Note how Cllr Tim Oliver uses ‘they’ not ‘we’ in his campaign support letter;

“At a time when there has been huge disruption for many of us to the waste collection service over the past few weeks as a result of new contractors they appointed, I think conceding they were wrong to bring in charges would in some small way be a sign that they are actually listening.”

The next upset waiting in the wings is the proposed closure of recycling facilities across Surrey. In an effort to save another £2 million the council is proposing to close four recycling centres and to restrict access to the others to five days a week instead of seven. This will undoubtedly lead to bigger queues at those centres left open and restrictions for vans, trailers and pickups will encourage fly-tipping; a dreadful eye-sore in the leafy Surrey lanes and an expensive clear-up cost for the cash-strapped council.

Still at the ‘consultation’ stage this has yet to cause a major storm but the proposals have not been well received by the concerned citizens of Elmbridge.

So let’s start joining up the dots on these three unpopular changes to the delivery of public services. What they all have in common is the need to save money. Surrey County Council has seen cuts of £170 million from (Conservative) central funding since 2010 and with a further £100 million to save this year the cuts will continue to come until the money has been found.

This is the austerity agenda. The same agenda that 35,071 (43%) people voted for in June 2017 when they elected Dominic Raab to represent them. He has continually voted for cuts to local councils since 2010. Five more years of austerity was the Manifesto promise and heaped onto the seven previous years it will see virtually no group left untouched. Perhaps people thought it wouldn’t be their tennis courts closed or their bins left un-emptied. Perhaps the cuts would all fall elsewhere, after all there is no ‘magic money tree’ so it had to be done.

Unless you are the 26% who voted other than Conservative in 2017, then you are pretty much getting what you voted for. So that’s fair play then. Well, except of course some of the 35,071 won’t be experiencing the pain of the cuts, just the benefits of a low tax, low public service economy. They live in the gated estates in St. George’s Hill and Weybridge. They don’t worry about smelly bins; they pay someone else to do that. Neither do they queue at the recycling centre on a hot Sunday morning in a car packed to the rafters with rotting debris. They may have their own tennis court or at the very least membership of an exclusive club. Not to mention private health insurance and private education. The Conservative driven low tax economy puts money in their pocket with no down-side. These exclusive areas represent a solid voting block which will help to maintain Elmbridge as a safe Tory seat, but they can’t do it alone.

Perhaps things will change as the majority of us come to realise that for every £1 given back in tax breaks we have to find £10 to pay for the things which used to be free. Or go without or course, that’s what the poor people do. As the cuts continue to bite across Surrey Conservative voters may finally start to understand the socialist mantra – ‘for the many, not the few’.

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