A petition calling for customer service centres in St Neots, Ramsey and Yaxley to remain open was presented to councillors at a Huntingdonshire District Council (HDC) meeting last night (Wednesday).

Protestors gather outside Pathfinder House, in Huntingdon. Picture: ARCHANTProtestors gather outside Pathfinder House, in Huntingdon. Picture: ARCHANT

A petition calling for customer service centres in St Neots, Ramsey and Yaxley to remain open was presented to councillors at a Huntingdonshire District Council (HDC) meeting last night (Wednesday).

The document, which has 836 signatures, was handed in at Pathfinder House, in Huntingdon, on July 4 by members of the St Neots' Labour branch, and was debated at the meeting held at Pathfinder House.

HDC plans to close the customer centres at the end of August and has been further developing online services to respond to customer queries about benefits and Council Tax.

Michelle Edwards, chairman of the St Neots Labour group, spoke at the meeting for five minutes saying that residents will be "left behind" if the centres closes.

Ms Edwards said: "Many residents of St Neots will have no easy access to local benefits, Council Tax and housing queries. Without a local district council office anyone who has no transport, has mobility difficulties, no access to the internet or simply can't afford the bus fare to Huntingdon will be unable to contact the district council in a timely and convenient manner.

"Huntingdonshire District Council has in the past said they will keep the office open. Now they have reneged their decision.

"This centre has deliberately been run down to reduce footfall. This centre has helped a homeless man get temporary accommodation and then find somewhere to live, and a mother and her child who was a victim of domestic violence. Neither of these would be possible with a home visit.

"People are being left behind accidently, now they are being left behind incidentally. Let's not let them be left behind deliberately."

However, councillor Dr Phillip Gaskin, said he empathised with residents, but said that the introduction of the "online portal" has been successful, and that it has "the potential to change the way that people can get information".

Dr Gaskin said: "We must reassure people that council services will still be accessible, even to those who are not highly IT literate".

However, Cllr Nik Johnson, said he supported the petition, saying "this is the community talking to us, everyone wants this service to stay."

Councillor Patrick Kadewere also raised his concerns, saying that "no proper consultation was held" and he encouraged councillors to do so.

HDC has said the closure of the three satellite offices are expected to save £90,000 in the current financial year.

However Councillor Darren Tysoe said that it was "an opportunity to explain what we are doing as a council".

He said: "Sure, everyone agrees that we should give the best customer service to our residents. However, look at the figures, two years ago we had 800 people visit the St Neots Centre, in 2018 we had 400 people, and this year we have had 300 people.

"We are seeing one to two customers an hour. We could continue spending £90,000 a year but I bet you will think there is a better way to spend this money.

"Since the portal has been opened, we have had more than 4,000 people register, one third of these are using the system to claim benefits. Half of these sign-ups are after working hours, meaning that it does meet the needs that the customer service centre doesn't provide"

It will now be up to Huntingdonshire District Council to decide on the future of the centre.