Post offices are like any other business. They have to move with the times, if they are to survive.
The debate that Conservatives have called today is not about whether
they need to change, but how they should change. As more and more
people work online, traditional areas of business have declined.
Government and other organisations are right to find the most efficient
way of delivering their services.
So, if our post offices are to survive, the Government needs to have a
positive vision for the role they should perform. That is precisely
what is missing today.
Ten years ago there were some 18,000 sub-post offices. Today there are
14,000 and that figure will drop to 11,500 as a result of the closure
programme. One third of the whole network will have closed in little
over ten years – a closure rate three times higher than ever in the
Worse than that, the Government simply does not have the policies to
not guarantee a further decline of the network in future years. The process
of gradual attrition will just continue.
There should be no doubt that this is not the Post Office’s closure programme. I have great respect for the work Adam Crozier and his team are doing to try and modernise the Royal Mail, but they are being forced to implement a closure programme imposed on them directly by the Government.
The Government has decided on the overall funding for the post office and determined that 2,500 should close; the Government has determined the flawed ‘access criteria’ which are being used to decide which ones should close; and the Government has forced through a consultation process half the length recommended by its own Cabinet Office.
The right policy, consistently advocated by David Cameron, Alan Duncan and the Conservative team, would be to find, first of all, new ways of bringing additional business to the post office network. Sub-post masters are entrepreneurs. They want to develop new services and they want to survive on business rather than subsidy – but in this topsy-turvy world they are stopped from doing so.
They should be working with carriers other than the Royal Mail, so they can become a hub for all the carrier services that drive endlessly around our communities trying (and usually failing) to deliver packages. They should be developing new financial services, as recommended by the Federation of Sub-Postmasters. They should relentlessly be seeking new opportunities to make post offices the place where we can access government and local government services.
The whole basis for the closure programme is flawed, but what has angered people more is the way in which it is being carried out.
The access criteria, established by the Government to decide which post offices should close, are decided largely on geography. Post offices which have queues all day long are being closed, not because they don’t have the business, but because a bureaucrat at a computer has decided they are simply in the wrong place.
As a result, many vulnerable people will lose a vital service in their community, even though the next post office may be some miles away, often with an inadequate bus service or along dangerous roads. People who have spent years building up their businesses will find it taken away from them. As was reported in the Telegraph on Monday, if they are not to have their compensation cut, there will even be a bar placed on the type of services they can offer in the future. Too often, when the post office goes, then the last shop in the village goes as well – and once they have gone, the prospects for ever opening again are remote.
There is also understandable anger at the timing of the consultations. The Cabinet Office clearly recommends that consultations of this type should last for 12 weeks; in defiance of its own rules, the Government has set a maximum of six weeks.
Some of these consultations took place in the run-up to, or during, the Christmas holidays, when people’s thoughts were inevitably elsewhere. People simply did not have the chance to make the strongest representations or involve their whole communities. In every part of the country, huge numbers of people, often elderly or disabled, have turned out on dark, cold nights to show their support for their local post office –the Government hasn’t yet recognised their anger, their pleas and concerns have been largely ignored.
People have concluded the consultation process is a sham, with only one or two being saved from closure, out of dozens being proposed in each area.
Even more insidious is the decision that for each one saved from closure, another should be added to the list. There could not be a more divisive formula to pit community against community. That is what has angered people when they see Cabinet Ministers, who have forced through the closure programme, arguing that their local post offices should be exempt. It’s not that they should not stand up for their constituents’ interests, but they are using their weight to have one less closure in their own constituency and to force one more in someone else’s.
Across the country, MPs of all parties are arguing that local post offices should be saved from closure. Three-quarters of the MPs whose constituencies are affected so far have argued for exemptions. Opposition on that scale shows that it is not just the consultation process, but the whole concept, that is flawed.
On their websites and in their local papers MPs (including Labour MPs) have argued that the access criteria are flawed. They have criticised the way the consultation process has worked. They have called for more time to explore new business opportunities and to see how post offices can do more with local councils. They are right on all counts.
The closure programme has been a botched exercise. Now MPs have to show that these concerns are more than just words, by voting to suspend the closures whilst the Government looks afresh at the whole future of the network – and how we can find new business rather than just manage its decline.
Those who fail to do so will forever be seen as people who will say whatever is necessary to win votes in their constituencies, but when they had the opportunity to do something to stop these closures, chose to do nothing.
Related link: Jonathan Sheppard’s perspective on the closures