Rural post offices under threat

ONE in four rural post offices in Suffolk and Essex could shut unless they are thrown a funding lifeline from the Government, it was warned last night.

ONE in four rural post offices in Suffolk and Essex could shut unless they are thrown a funding lifeline from the Government, it was warned last night.

If the branches are “forced to close” it would devastate many isolated countryside communities and deal a body-blow to the rural economy.

Up to 50 village post offices in the two counties could be under threat if the Government decides to halt its financial support to the rural network, the figures - released for the first time - show.

After five years, this funding, worth £150million a year, is due to end in March 2008 - unless a cabinet committee chaired by Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott decides in the autumn that it should continue.

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Rural Action East, representing the region's rural community councils, has warned that branches which are an “essential feature of community life” would become commercially unviable if the payout finishes.

It would also lead to the loss of many village stores that depend on post offices' income to survive, the charity said.

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Suffolk ACRE and the Rural Community Council of Essex (RCCE) are now writing to all their MPs and council leaders to urge them to fight for the network.

Nick Shuttleworth, RCCE executive director, said: “What we are trying to do is impress on as many decision makers, politicians and influential bodies in the region and beyond how important rural post offices are to people that live in our villages.”

Dr Wil Gibson, chief executive of Suffolk ACRE, added: “It's the smaller, more isolated post offices that are more vulnerable, which provide an important role in their communities.”

There are 864 rural branches in the six counties of the eastern region, out of a total of 1,365 post offices.

Rural Action East said there are around 120 rural branches in Suffolk and a further 70 in Essex, warning up to a quarter could be affected by the potential change in funding.

And the National Federation of SubPostmasters has predicted branches could close within a month if the review scraps the financial support.

Beryl Keats, Ipswich and district secretary of the National Federation of SubPostmasters, said: “If the Government takes away this funding, any help they are getting is nullified.

“It is a real, real problem, not just for the rural networks but for every small Post Office. Post offices do not run on thin air.

“There are MPs that live in the country and near a village Post Office - they should be fighting on behalf of their local village Post Office. Whether Government is really listening we are yet to find out.”

Douglas Carswell, MP for Harwich, said: “I would be very concerned if this funding was not renewed. In the constituency I represent there are a number of villages with small post offices that people do rely on. The form a central part of village life for many people.”

A spokeswoman for Post Office Ltd said: “We are doing everything we can to keep the rural network going and we provide support and assistance to sub postmasters.

“However, the majority of these branches are fundamentally loss-making and have needed every penny of the £150m Government funding that has been made available to keep them open until 2008.

“Our discussions with the Government, on future funding to support these branches after this date, continues.”

A Department of Trade and Industry spokesman said: “We support Post Office Ltd in seeking to create a viable post office network that meets the changing needs of customers and local communities and we are discussing with other Government departments and Post Office Ltd how we can best achieve this.”

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