Around 500 angry people crowded into Ramsey Grammar School last night, to protest against the proposed closure of the town’s post office.
Post Office counter staff were greeted with applause as they filed into the meeting, which was convened by the commissioners following the shock announcement last week that Post Office was to close its crown office at the Courthouse, Ramsey.
People were even more shocked when word went round that following a closed tender process, Mannin Retail Ltd, a subsidiary of Heron & Brearley, had been awarded the contract to operate a sub post office in its Spar shop and that existing post office staff would have to apply for jobs.
Chairman of the commissioners Nigel Malpass chaired last night’s meeting which was the largest the town has seen for many years.
Post Office Graham Cregeen MHK, chief executive Mike Kelly, Chief Minister Allan Bell and Leonard Singer MHK were given a rough ride by a sometimes hostile audience, relentless in its quest for answers.
The Post Office’s video presentation of how the Spar shop would look when converted was met with derision – and a slow hand clap.
The meeting lasted two and a quarter hours and held a number of surprises: the first being a confirmation from Mr Cregeen that, contrary to public perception, no contract with Mannin Retail had actually been signed.
It emerged that nine businesses had been approached but Mannin Retail was the only one to show an interest.
The second surprise was an apology to the staff by Allan Bell who accepted it had been he and Treasury Minister Eddie Teare who had suggested to the Post Office board that they try the ‘closed tender’ route when seeking a commercial entity to take over the running of the Ramsey office.
It had been done with the best of intentions, he said, to spare staff months of uncertainty over the future of the facility.
‘It was our suggestion that they start by just testing the water with a closed tender and if there were expressions of interest then put it out publicly’, he said.
‘I apologise to the staff for putting them through this ordeal. We really do appreciate them’.
Asked why he had not stopped it getting this far, Mr Bell said he shared everyone’s attachment to the Ramsey office and its staff and agreed that the announcement had been handled very badly; but people had to realise that the Isle of Man had lost an enormous £200million a year with the VAT shake-up and it was a ‘nightmare’ trying to re-balance the budget.
‘We have an absolutely enormous problem, and we have got to be realistic and honest about it’, he said.
Mr Singer was put in the firing line by people wanting to know why, only last week, he had accepted the post of deputy chairman of the Post Office – knowing the current situation. He replied that he felt he would be ‘better fighting from the inside’. This was met with muted calls for his resignation from his new role, on grounds of conflict of interest.
Asked if there was any truth in the rumour that the Courthouse would be turned into a gastro-pub like Bar George if Mannin Retail took over, he replied ‘no’, but added that the Post Office lease of the building from the Department of Home Affairs would end in 2016 and whatever happened after that was out of his hands.
Both Post Office representatives were at pains to emphasise the fact that the retail network (i.e. counter transactions) was in decline, due to increased competition from delivery firms and use of the internet. Yet, pressurised for figures, they agreed that the undertaking as a whole was in profit and had considerable reserves, but like other government divisions it had to pay an annual dividend to Treasury and in this case the figure was £2million.
A petition against the closure bearing more than 3,000 signatures was presented by Kirsten Watling, who received a standing ovation, as did Irene Brew, who put out the papers and collected them all in again.
‘We will not have the heart ripped out of Ramsey!’ declared a defiant Mrs Brew.
The meeting ended with a clear message to the politicians - to go back and think again.
Mr Bell assured the hall that he had been listening very clearly: ‘I have heard what you have said tonight. I will take the views of Ramsey to the Post Office Board and Treasury to see if there is any flexibility, and while I cannot make any promises we will discuss it tomorrow’.