Tuesday, 21 May 2019

Questions (57)

Brian Stanley

Question:

57. Deputy Brian Stanley asked the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment his views regarding the relocation of post offices from town centres to the outer fringes of towns and thereby accelerating the doughnut effect of towns. [21705/19]

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Oral answers (6 contributions) (Question to Communications)

What is the Minister's view on the relocation of post offices from town centres to retail facilities on the outer fringes of towns? This is accelerating the so-called doughnut effect which the Government and local authorities are supposed to be counteracting in towns.

We discussed this earlier in the week. An Post has its own State board and its own prerogatives. We in the Oireachtas have designated this to be so. It is responsible for the day-to-day management of its affairs. My responsibility is to ensure that the company operates to the standards of governance set for it and that it is in a financially sound position. As the Deputy knows, the company was not in a financially sound position very recently and it is suffering a continuous decline in revenue from traditional postal services. An Post has had to be very innovative in developing new services. Its view is that it can deliver new services if it develops a modern post office network. One of its offices is in Deputy Stanley's constituency. He has mentioned another in discussions. An Post has made that decision to best serve the people of Laois and Tipperary, to ensure that they have access to a high quality modern postal service and at the same time to ensure that the company continues to be viable and has the customer base that will allow it to thrive in the future.

The company is undertaking and delivering major strategic reform and is improving its services. The proof of the pudding is in the growth in its parcel business and its movement into financial services. It is transforming its business and we must allow the company do what is best for its customer base and workers.

I am well aware of the situation An Post was in two or three years ago. Members from all across the Chamber supported a number of measures in this House to try and retrieve the situation. An Post got a financial injection from the Government to modernise. The protection of the post office network is within the terms of the partnership Government. That is fine but what is happening here flies in the face of that. The Government has said that it wants to protect small and medium-sized rural towns and yet, in action, the Government is doing the very opposite and tearing the heart out of them.

The Department of Rural and Community Development and other Departments are engaged in town and village renewable schemes in the centres of towns, putting down nice paving and all of that, while at the same time vital parts of the cluster of businesses needed to retain and maintain a town centre are being pulled out. The Minister should know that the post office network is a vital component of the cluster of businesses in rural towns and villages. Pulling out the post office would have the same effect as pulling out one leg from underneath a stool. The stool will keel over. That is likely to happen to our towns and villages. This will have a detrimental effect on the hearts of towns such as Mountmellick and Thurles.

The mandate of An Post must be to develop services for its customer base. It has been very successful in developing the parcel network. It is dealing with big companies like Amazon and other online players. It has successfully developed its own parcel business. It is developing into the financial services sector. We must rely on its capacity to build its customer base and ensure it delivers a high quality, future-proofed service to the people of Laois.

The Deputy wants me to issue a ministerial direction against the views of the board which is responsible for delivering that quality service. If that direction was unsuccessful, the Deputy would rightly ask why the Minister intervened in the work of An Post, resulting in its successful strategy for the future development being undermined. The Deputy would rightly come in here and say that.

The board, the chief executive and the staff have a responsibility and they are taking it seriously. They are restructuring the company, developing modern, future-proofed services for communities in Laois and every other county and are doing so effectively. We must allow them to do the work for which they are responsible.

All of those services will have to fit into the new An Post premises in Connolly Street in Mountmellick. Sinn Féin supports the modernisation of the network and the provision of additional services through the post office network. Sinn Féin has put forward various proposals for that over the past ten or 15 years and supported the general thrust of that notion. There is no argument there. However, the modernisation that must happen in the building in Connolly Street is similar to that which would have been required in An Post's former premises in the town square. The Minister mentioned the parcel service which is growing at the same time as the mail business is decreasing. I recognise that as a commercial reality but there was sufficient space in the building in the town square to do that. That building remains available and there is another one in the town square that is also available.

Sinn Féin also supported co-location of post offices in smaller towns and villages to ensure they were viable and retained in the commercial hearts of villages and towns. There is no argument other than that new services should be available and Sinn Féin supports that fully.

The Minister is saying he cannot issue a policy directive but this is a policy issue. I ask the Minister at least to discuss it with the chief executive officer of An Post, Mr. David McRedmond. This is a policy issue which is impacting negatively on Government policy, spatial strategies and the policies of local government. It is also impacting the local town development plan and the county development plan in County Laois.

The Oireachtas has given the company and its local service providers the responsibility to work with its local customer base to develop those services and deliver them in the most appropriate way. It would be totally incorrect of me to try and intervene in that process. An Post has a responsibility to its customers and it is convinced that it will deliver a better service to the people of Mountmellick and Laois by making the changes it is making. It believes that its move is in the best interests of developing and future proofing those services. I cannot impose myself and try to alter An Post's evaluation. It is dealing with its customer base locally and must make those decisions. That is the responsibility of the An Post board. Of course I urge An Post to talk to local stakeholders and customers to ensure it is making the right decision but I will not put myself in the position of intervening because the board rightly has the responsibility for taking those decisions.