Monday, August 20, 2007

Which Post Offices will be closed?

The Royal Mail is currently carrying out a government inspired demolition job on the Post Office network. Having closed 4000 branches since they came to power in 1997, they now want to close a further 2500. The bureaucratic wheels are now turning and decisions are being made now as to which branches are due to close. We should know soon which communities will suffer the loss of their branch.

I raise this now as one of the postmasters in my area phoned me last night and, as you would expect, it cropped up in the conversation.

It is the case that the income of Post Offices has fallen in recent years. Some of this is down to choice by customers who, for example, opt to get their pensions paid directly into a bank account (though frankly the government's crude armtwisting of pensioners to have pensions paid into bank accounts was a disgrace). Some of it has simply been government decisions to end activities carried out through post offices.

The main focus of the government and Royal Mail should now be to increase the business of branches in new areas. Despite the financial problems of the network, the branches across the country still constitute a large presence on town high streets. And some work has been done to capitalise on that presence. For instance, banks are interested in placing cash machines in some branches where they don't have a bank branch of their own. Putting a cash machine into a post office instead makes sense and as they rent the space from the branch, there is an immediate benefit to the branch itself.

In my village of Sunniside in Gateshead, an application was submitted for a cash machine and yet, bizarrely it was turned down by the planning committee on the grounds that increased customers could cause road problems (the branch is next to a pelican crossing). This is almost like saying the post office shouldn't be there in the first place as it is likely to attract customers and people to the area. As it is, there is a post box right outside the Post Office and right next to the pelican crossing. That doesn't cause any road problems now.

Both the postmaster and I spoke for this application at the planning committee in June when it was considered. I came away from that meeting stunned when they turned down the application. The argument we made was that this would help to secure the future of the branch through its own business activity. We both collected a petition of over 200 signatures in favour of the application. We wait to see whether or not the bank will appeal but given the large number of bank cash machines next to pedestrian crossings, my feeling is that this is an appeal that would win were it to go ahead.

It is unfortunate that the branch has been put in this position. At a time when the post office branch network is under threat, Labour councillors (and it was only Labour councillors who voted to reject the application) have put the boot in needlessly into one individual branch. And given it is their party ordering the closure of so many branches (they claimed in the local elections in May they were against closure of branches) their record on post offices is at best lamentable, certainly hypocritical and at worst downright damaging.

No doubt when the first wave of closures is announced, Labour members will scream about how terrible the closures are. And once they have finished posturing, their party will swing the axe.

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