Post office cuts 'could kill villages'

A UNION official has warned there could be massive rural post office closures – sparking the "death" of village life – unless the future Government pledges a long-term cash lifeline.

A UNION official has warned there could be massive rural post office closures - sparking the "death" of village life - unless the future Government pledges a long-term cash lifeline.

Jon Richardson, regional secretary for the Federation of Sub-postmasters, claimed the axe could fall on many rural branches in Suffolk and Essex unless a new subsidy scheme is agreed.

Although Whitehall has pledged an annual subsidy of £150million to help rural post offices until 2008, it remains unclear what will happen after that time.

Mr Richardson warned yesterday if the scheme was not extended, it could spell disaster.

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He added: "The post office is a vital part of village life and the Government would be destroying one of the greatest institutions of rural areas.

"I think it will mean massive closures which is very sad. The rural post office remains a vital lifeline for pensioners and ordinary village people and I think there will be a big backlash."

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The major political parties currently have no specific subsidy plans in place beyond 2008 should they win the general election.

Gregor McGregor, chief executive of the Post Office's watchdog, Postwatch, said the absence of a promise of future subsidy or a coherent plan for rural post offices was a concern.

The group predicts that over the next five years 6,000 of the 9,000 loss-making branches nationwide could be shut down with a loss of 10,000 jobs.

Mr Richardson added the closure of many post offices could also lead to the end of village life.

"As soon as you close a post office you usually close the village shop because they are quite often the same thing. One can't survive without the other," he said.

"Without that type of service village life would die. It really is most important to keep them going but I don't see any other way that it can be done without a subsidy.

"The problem is that the rural network cannot stand on its own because the Post Office no longer makes sufficient profit. Someone has to subsidise them if they are going to survive."

The situation has also prompted concerns from countryside campaigners.

Dr Wil Gibson, chief executive of rural community charity Suffolk Acre, said: "The problem is that the more you lose rural services the harder it is to regenerate those communities. It creates an air that nothing can happen and there is a danger that they become dormant."

Jack Thain, chairman of the Suffolk Pensioners Association, warned: "The post office is often the centre of village life and it becomes a little social club to a lot of elderly people."

Peter Chillingworth, chairman of the Campaign to Protect Rural Essex, added: "I think it would be disastrous, if it happens.

"Post offices are one of the main facilities in rural areas, and keep all sorts of things going."

For the past year Postwatch, which is funded by the Department of Trade and Industry, has been pleading with the Government to produce a plan to solve the crisis in the rural network.

A spokesperson for Post Office Ltd said it was working with the Government on initiatives to save the network.

"The reality is that we have always known that the subsidy was only until 2008 and we are currently looking at other options to maintain rural post offices," she said.

A Labour Party spokesperson added: "We have made no commitment for the future of the post offices after 2008 but we are keeping the matter under review.

"I don't think it will be a case of as soon as 2008 comes along that the funding suddenly stops. A new package will be put together and the situation reassessed."

Conservative Tim Yeo, shadow environment and transport secretary, said: "One of the reasons post offices face such a crisis is the change in system for collecting pensions and social services benefits, which reduces the number of people visiting post offices. If we can reverse that process, post offices will have a chance.

"We haven't looked beyond 2008 but we have a much stronger commitment to the role of post offices as part of the lifeblood of rural communities - the Government has been quite cynical in allowing closures to take place.

"We will work very hard to try to boost the income that post offices get from all sources in rural areas - particularly pensioners claiming their entitlements - and when it gets to 2008 we will look very sympathetically at the need for continued financial contribution."

Bob Russell, Liberal Democrat candidate for Colchester, said: "We have pledged to maintain a national network of post offices in both rural and urban areas.

"Government policies have been directed at closing post offices and the Liberal Democrats have been vocal in opposing closures. You can be assured we will strive to do all we can to maintain a meaningful network in rural areas as well as in urban."

n Candidates standing in the South Suffolk constituency are James Carver (UKIP), Kevin Craig (Labour), Kathy Pollard (Lib Dems) and Tim Yeo (Conservative).

n Candidates standing in the Colchester constituency are Kevin Bentley (Conservative), Laura Bruni (Labour) and Bob Russell (Lib Dems).

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