We’re told we live in an internet age. The need to meet people face to face to get advice and solve problems is not as important as it once was. The growing views is that everything can be done by telephone or online. That means that in an age when money is tight, councils can rely on call centres and computers to steer people though the sometimes labyrinthym procedures for benefits, permits and payments.
That’s the thinking behind Shropshire Council’s plan to reduce the opening hours of its drop-in service in Ludlow Library from four days to two days a week. If the plans go through, the Ludlow customer service point, as the service is known, will only open between 9.30am and 5.00pm on Tuesdays and Fridays.
This is yet another cut as Shropshire Council runs out of cash for many services.
The council’s plans have not yet been published. News of a cut in the opening hours of customer service points comes in a memo from officers to councillors. This follows a consultation back in the summer. A final decision will be down to the council’s cabinet in the next couple of months.
Already Shropshire Council has withdrawn its staff from nine customer service point in rural areas because they have a lower footfall. Customers in more rural areas must use a telephone or computer to contact the council.
Shropshire Council now proposes to cut back opening hours at the six remaining customer service points in Ludlow, Bridgnorth, Market Drayton, Oswestry, Shrewsbury and Whitchurch.
Shropshire Council claims this will not have a significant impact on customer services because are using the internet or phones to obtain information and advice.
that internet access to customer services in increasing. But, not for the first time, the council is unable to provide any data on how many people use the internet to access information and advice online and whether this is increasing. My experience is that it can be hard to find information on the council’s website. Planning is highlighted on the front page of the website. Parking fines are there on the front page. The words benefit and support are not mentioned.
We have an elderly population in Ludlow.  Many have no experience of the internet and they are not going to learn. This is part of a broader picture in Shropshire. Nationally, 10% have not used the internet in the last three months or have not used it all. In Shropshire, reflecting our elderly population, 16% of adults do not use the internet.  We should not leave people who cannot use the internet behind.
This is the countywide picture. What’s happening in Ludlow?
Data provided by Shropshire Council suggests that usage of the Ludlow customer service point has fallen 57% compared to 25% in Shrewsbury.
This is not based on a like on like comparison. One third of the fall in numbers in Ludlow was due to Shropshire Council’s decision to move the customer service point into a public space in the Library when it sold Stone House. People with personal and sensitive problems do not want to be seen and heard discussing them in the full view of the town.
As the table below shows, like on like reduction in footfall is 27% in Ludlow and 25% in Shrewsbury.
I accept that the way we access information is changing. More information is being sought online, though not apparently through Shropshire Council’s call centre.
There is a modal shift in how we access services, especially for younger people. But it would be wrong to become overly reliant on the internet and phone services at this juncture. To do so, would discriminate against older and vulnerable people.
I am not opposed in principle to a reduction in overall hours at the Ludlow customer service point. But I am firmly opposed to a reduction in the number of days the customer service point is open. Reduced hours four days a week would be a more effective option than limiting the service to two days.
 Ludlow North, which I represent, is one of the oldest council wards in the country. In 2005, 188 out the 7,655 council wards in England had an older population than Ludlow North. By 2014, just 118 wards had a more elderly population. With the opening of new accommodation for elderly people, our town is getting older quickly.
 Source: ONS, Internet users, UK: 2018. The survey estimate of 16% non-internet usage in Shropshire is subject to a degree of uncertainty. There is a 95% chance the true figure is as low as 12% and as high as 21%. Nationally, internet use for all adults is increasing by 1.3% a year. That means near 100% use is seven years away across the UK. Applying national figures to Shropshire, we are 12 years away from near 100% use.