AN MP last night (Tuesday, January 4) accused the Post Office of abandoning Stockton as it announced plans to close its branch in the town.

Instead the Post Office counter will operate from a franchised branch within the WHSmith store, in Wellington Square at the other end of the High Street.

Stockton North’s Labour MP Alex Cunningham said: “The council has invested millions in the High Street, and the Castlegate Centre has invested millions, and the Post Office’s response has been to walk away.

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“They should have a stake in our town. Instead it is yet another empty building at the end of the High Street.”

He said the move was like privatisation by the back door, as the Post Office counter will now be run by WHSmith, and said he was extremely disappointed the company had gone ahead with the decision despite the concerns raised during the recent public consultation.

He said the range of services that customers enjoy at Post Office counters would now be lost from the High Street and meant an inferior service for Stockton.

“The founding principle of universal facilities, denoted by the equal availability of high-quality services at locations across the country, has been lost in the rhetoric of austerity, cuts, and efficiency savings as the Government continues its assault on public services,” he said.

The Post Office last night hailed its new branch as a modern, open-plan branch with extended opening hours and the same range of Post Office products and services.

It said opening hours would be extended by four and a half hours each week, with service on Sundays, and improved accessibility would include an automatic door and low-level serving counter.

The current branch will close on Wednesday, February 26, with the new branch within WHSmith opening the next day.

A statement from the company said: “The move is part of a major modernisation programme across the Post Office network designed to ensure that Post Office branches are sustainable, profitable and no longer reliant on Government funding.

“The modernisation programme will make it easier for customers to do business, through longer opening hours and modern, open-plan environments.”

Stockton-on-Tees Post Office is currently one of 369 Crown branches which are directly owned by Post Office Ltd. Most Post Office branches – over 10,000 are now run by third parties.

It said there would be no compulsory redundancies but staff would either transfer to WHSmith or be redeployed within the Post Office.

Roger Gale, Crown Network General Manager, said: “We are committed to keeping a Post Office branch in Stockton-on-Tees and to maintaining the same levels of service for our customers.

"We believe the best way for us to do this is to change the way we operate the branch, so following the move it will be run by WHSmith High Street Ltd rather than by us directly.”