16 Feb 2010

Are our Post Offices under threat?

I'll come to the possible threat in a mo, but first want to mention that there is a chance to have your say on the Post Office banking proposals - as long as you get it in by February 24th.

I did the online form last week - but have been incensed by some of Mandelson's comments when he says "The post office is at the heart of every community". Tell that to all the residents in Gloucestershire who have seen their post offices close. 3,000 post offices have shut over the past three years and thousands more have been axed since Labour came to power in 1997. Stroud was of course the second town to save a post office - see here.

We also heard that the prime minister feels that it may be useful for the post office to expand its services to include a form of banking and other financial services!!! What are they talking about???! Isn't this what they put a spanner in the works over years ago?

Indeed already there is strong criticism that a non-UK bank, Bank of Ireland, has already been selected to operate the accounts. The Federation of Sub-Postmasters wants a Government-owned account provider, rather than a private, commercial company. Good for them - indeed aren't there lots of opportunities now with Northern Rock to create a fully fledged Postbank? Why should the profits go abroad??

At the New Economics Foundation they note (see here): "The consultation is really worrying on two counts. The main one is that these mouse-like developments – in fact any self-respecting mouse would have a bolder vision than this – don't tackle the neglect and the lack of government support from which the Post Office has suffered for decades. A third of sub-postmasters and sub-postmistresses have seen their revenues decline in the last year. This is just not sustainable. The government has recognised today that the Post Office is a great British institution but it needs to treat it like one.

That means that it doesn't need this consultation (reporting cunningly just before the election, when the long grass will be even longer) but it does need to follow the excellent advice of the BIS select committee report last July – on, yes, the future of the Post Office. Having massively consulted, it concluded that financial services should be expanded and that, crucially, the government must put its business through post offices and recognise the Post Office's potential as an unparalleled social, community and economic network."

Mandelson's department needs to be more radical, more profoundly committed to strengthening the Post Office, more committed to helping small businesses have the financial advice and help they need, than is allowed for by these virtuous proposals. Consulting us on a Post Bank, on using Northern Rock, on making the Post Office the public alternative to our present dreadful banking system – now that would be worth consulting on."

So officially why is there a consultation? The Government is proposing to expand the range of financial services at Post Offices in order to generate additional revenue to help maintain a more secure and sustainable Post Office network. The proposals will also address the uneven distribution of financial services currently, which can lead to those living in rural and deprived urban areas having reduced or no access to such services locally. See here comments a year ago on this.

How can I respond? There is a 6 question response form on the Department for Business Innovation and Skills website. Please do submit a response even if you do not wish to answer all 6 questions as the more representations made, the louder the voice of Gloucestershire's communities. Go to: www.berr.gov.uk/consultations/page53848.html

Are our Post Offices under threat?

I've taken the liberty of adapting some of this from an Officers email from Stroud District Council....After the Post Office ‘National Network Change programme’ in 2008, we were assured that all branches that survived closure would be protected under the Governments commitment until 2011.

Photo: PO on Cainscross roundabout opposite Tricorn House

This meant that if a branch faced difficulties such as with its branch management or premises, then Post Office Ltd would do what they could to find an alternative solution to Post Office provision in that area.

However recently we have seen a couple of local Post Offices in the Stroud District struggle to remain viable for various reasons and there have been a couple of temporary closures. True to their word, Post Office Ltd has worked to find alternative solutions; some have been successful and some are pending further agreement. Profit levels at most individual branches nationally are at best marginal with many operating at a loss, being very heavily subsidised by Post Office Ltd and the Government with an annual network subsidy payment of £150 million being made.

‘2011’ sounded a long way off, but now it is just around the corner. We cannot predict what the impact on the network subsidy payment will be, but thinking on the cautious side, we may in a year or so’s time be looking at another ‘National Network Change’ (closure) programme. Should this be the case, it would be wise for our communities in the Stroud District to be proactively looking at what can be done now to ensure their local branch clearly is not on the marginal or loss making hit list.

I've already raised this issue with Parish Councils who are looking at whether to raise with subpostmasters. In my view we could still be doing more to support our local POs - I've asked if the Warbler can encourage folk to use our local PO near the Tesco Express. What other thoughts do folk have??

See previous post office blogs by clicking on label - like letter re privatisation here, march in Stroud here and indeed lots more re Paganhill PO and the closure of Whiteshill PO.

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