A couple of weeks ago I was contacted by the Post Office to tell me they planned to close Chester’s main Crown Post Office in St John Street.
Their plan is to move it into space at WH Smith’s on Eastgate Street.
It is a barmy idea that smacks of cost cutting without consideration for decent customer service. The idea was made to seem even more daft a couple of days later when WH Smith’s announced it was closing six stores as part of a review of its operations. What would the Post Office do if they moved into Smith’s and then the latter hit financial problems and needed to close its Chester store?
Chester is a county town and historic city which needs a main post office – indeed ours is well used. But this is indicative of bigger problems on Britain’s high streets.
Certainly, out of town shopping malls and internet shopping (through companies like Amazon that do not contribute fairly through UK tax) have hit town centres hard.
Another big cause of decline is that people don’t have as much money these days. Real wages are no higher than they were ten years ago. There are fewer secure jobs. More people in work need benefits to survive from day to day, and as we have seen with Universal Credit, even the benefits system isn’t supporting poorly paid families as it was intended.
We are still waiting for reform of business rates, which are set nationally.
But another big problem is rents. They are too high, and landlords have not taken account of the changing high street landscape by reducing the rents for shopkeepers.
In fact, it is better for some landlords to keep a shop empty but leave it as a high value asset on their balance sheet. Once they reduce the rent, its long-term value falls so the overall value of the landlord’s property portfolio is downgraded. It is madness to let our high streets wither away with empty shops, just to maintain unsustainable land values for remote property owners.
Schemes such as the Northgate Development will breathe new life back into Chester. The council has had to listen carefully and make important changes to its plans over time, to reflect the changing realities of British retail. Private landlords must do the same.
We have to make a stand to save our high streets. Stopping the post office closure might seem a small step, but it is a start. Chester deserves better than to be treated in this way and I, along with the Communication Workers Union, will do my best to see this crazy decision reversed.