Warning on future of rural post offices
By Mark HeathBRITAIN's network of sub-post offices is in “serious danger of extinction”, the Government has been warned.The National Federation of Sub-Postmasters said urgent Government action was needed to prevent the network sinking into terminal decline.
By Mark Heath
BRITAIN's network of sub-post offices is in “serious danger of extinction”, the Government has been warned.
The National Federation of Sub-Postmasters said urgent Government action was needed to prevent the network sinking into terminal decline.
The federation set out its proposals to revitalise the post office system in a manifesto launched yesterday, with the backing of the all-party post offices group of MPs.
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It called for a one-off cash injection of £150million for the urban post office network to produce “bigger, better and brighter” branches and the drawing up of a programme by 2008 to develop the “optimum, viable rural network”.
The federation said the current level of Government support was doing no more than “prop up” an “ailing” rural network.
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It also wanted the Government to pay for the setting up of a £12m business advice service for postmasters and to develop postmasters as “government general practitioners”, providing public advice on a range of government issues and transactions.
Federation general secretary, Colin Baker, said sub-post offices had lost 40% of their revenue as a result of the switch to paying state pensions and benefits directly into bank accounts, rather than over the counter.
Sally Reeves, a federation executive member who runs the Stowupland Post Office, near Stowmarket, said changes must be made.
“We need the Government to do more than just prop up what is there. We need their payment to come through to sub-postmasters for them to be able to invest in their business,” she added.
“We do play quite a big social role within our communities - in terms of social interaction - but there's no way that gets recognised and a payment should be allocated to the sub-postmaster for the responsibility they fulfil.
“We are also asking the Government to provide money for sub-postmasters to pay for a specialist business advice service so they can take advantage of the help and skills that are available.
“I think the issue becomes does this Government want to be the one that oversees the decline of the post office network, which is a beloved institution that is vital to community life?
“We are going through some very difficult times and it's hard to say what will happen in the future, but this manifesto is laying down quite clearly what we want.”
Ray Robinson, who last month resigned as sub-postmaster of Robinson's of Tiptree after 11 years in the job, said the picture painted by the federation was “depressingly familiar”.
Mr Robinson added his revenues and profits had consistently declined over the years, but the biggest blow had come when the Government introduced its direct payments scheme for benefits.
“The knock-on effect of that is devastating. When people don't need to come to your store any more, only one thing gives - and that's revenues,” he said.
“And when revenues fall, you have to cut your costs and that means employing less people and that means working even harder.
“It just got too much for me and I think it's probably the same for a lot of people - I'm not optimistic about the future.”
The manifesto launch came as it was confirmed another post office in East Anglia would be closing.
Drew McBride, Post Office Head of Area, said the decision to shut the Wherstead Road branch in Ipswich had followed a six-week public consultation.
“Of course, no-one likes to see the branch nearest to them shut, but even with these closures, customers will still have reasonable access to alternative Post Office services,” he added.