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Community / Low turnout for Post Office relocation briefing

A HANDFUL of people attended a Lerwick Town Hall meeting yesterday (Tuesday) where three officials were on hand to explain a proposed Post Office move to Conochies newsagent 100 metres along Commercial Street.

The Post Office has dubbed the move “part of the continuing modernisation of our branch network” and the “most effective way to secure the viability of Post Office services in Lerwick.”

The Post Office on Commercial Street, which employs three part-time and two full-time service staff and a manager, is one of the few remaining directly managed POs in Britain. Staff have been given the option to move to Conochies, where three places are available, relocate elsewhere, or take a severance package.

While not officially part of the consultation, which is being continued via the Post Office website at postofficeviews.co.uk or comments@postoffice.co.uk, the meeting was a chance for the Post Office to explain the thinking behind its move.

Post Office area manager Kenny Lamont said that while it was not yet a “done deal”, “it moves the Post Office into the modern environment, it stabilises it. It moves it into the new operating model.”

Conochies is part of the Post Office’s “new working model”. Photo: P. Johnson/Shetland News.

He said that of the 11,500 POs in the UK, only 150 were directly managed – including the main Lerwick PO. “The other 11,350 up and down the country operate under the new means model, and that is what we are trying to do in Lerwick,” he said.

External relations manager Mark Gibson said that while the deal was not yet set in stone, past experience has shown it will take something major to halt the move.

PO external relations manager Mark Gibson. Photo: P. Johnson/Shetland News

Nor did he say the low turnout reflected public apathy about the situation; some of the feedback received might help the PO fine tune its Conochies plans.

Gibson said that the social aspect of the organisation was important with a visit to the Post Office being the only face to face interaction some customers might have. “Not only are we a commercial entity, we also have a social heart. We want to keep that, we think it is quite precious,” he said.

Criticism of the proposal hinges around staff and customer space in Conochies and “poorer” access for users. The area lacks dedicated disabled parking and is at a narrower and probably busier section of the street.

The present Post Office leases its space from the Royal Mail, which was split from the Post Office and privatised in 2013. Gibson said that the old building was suitable for the historic volume of business, but declining use of the Post Office meant that a space like Conochies was more than adequate. “We believe we are more than covering what is needed,” he said.

Gibson said that the new Post Office will offer the same products and services and longer opening hours as its predecessor at 46 Commercial Street.

As far as disabled parking went – “it may be something the council will look at in the future,” Gibson said, adding that it had been confirmed that disabled badge cars can park outside Conochies as long as they are not causing an obstruction.

The Post Office main counter is planned to be open eight hours longer per week (9am to 5.30pm Monday to Saturday) over existing arrangements and its serving position at the retail till will additionally be open from 12pm to 5pm on Sunday.

Wheelchair user Diana Winfield spent two hours outlining her concerns with PO change manager Steven Simpson and referred to a small plan produced by the Post Office of how Conochies newsagent might be re-purposed for dual use. However she was not allowed to take the plan with her for “security reasons”.

Diana Winfield. Photo: P. Johnson/Shetland News

She said that among her concerns about Conochies was the employability of someone with a wheelchair or mobility problems in such a restricted space.

Winfield added: “A second issue is that the retail counter queue goes back across the entrance to the Post Office section.

“A third is the amount of people sometimes during the weekend during the four months of cruise ships and the special weeks. It means that space is a bit limited, and how Conochies uses shelving round the edge in terms of access.”

She added that while Conochies met legal requirements for aisle width, in practice there was not enough room for wheelchairs and people with bags, children or disabilities to pass, especially in areas with shelves. “It is very tight,” she said.

Winfield added: “There is no parking actually there that is dedicated disabled parking. Stopping on the street, even for people who have got disability badges, when you have got all the tourists, makes it a dangerous drive and it is dangerous for the wheelchair – it is really difficult to drive when it’s crowded.”

In addition to this, the disabled parking on the pier is difficult to access, especially when cruise liners are in, and the parking at the back of Conochies is full up or needed for loading.

Winfield was also critical of the consultation being done via the Post Office website, which immediately ruled out people with no internet access, or who did not look at the site.

Advertising for commercial partners had also been done through the Post Office site, which she again felt restricted the competition and might have ruled out some more suitable premises.

She said that her own involvement in the consultation had been fortuitous as she “did not normally go out”. Staff at both the Post Office and Conochies appeared to have no detailed knowledge of what was planned either.

“Conochies has to rethink some of what they do and they may lose a lot of ability to sell. I’m not sure it is going to help with Conochies generally.”

According to Winfield, using Conochies for a Post Office will breach provisions in the legal acts of employment, health and safety and equal opportunities.

The consultation ends next Wednesday (23 October) and the Post Office move to Conochies is scheduled to take place in January.