Friday, 29 February 2008

The Politics of Post Offices

It's funny how services that people don't often use, but have a central place in the popular imagination, arouse such intense passions. Rural railways are a classic example, with locals protesting against the closure of a service carrying empty trains because no-one uses them. Yet people like them to be there. (Sometimes, of course, it's because the service is useless, or unmarketed, or both, but that's another story).

The other classic is the Post Office. The current proposals to close 2,500 offices has unleashed an almighty political row. Now, before I go any further, I must come clean here: I'm the son of a Postmaster, and grew up happily helping my mother put together the window displays for our little sub-office. I'm not quite sure what the customers made of my snowman, made for the Christmas window out of a washing-up liquid bottle covered in cotton wool, or the Springtime duckling, made with sheets of bright yellow tissue paper. Perhaps they thought it was sweet. Or just tacky. Or perfectly fine for somewhere in a rather small town in the middle nowhere. (And we are talking the 60s, here...)

But closing a Post Office clearly hits a raw nerve. Largely, the problem is that so much of the basic trade - pensions, family allowances, benefits - which were the staples for our family business, are now deposited electronically, directly into people's bank accounts. In rural areas, they still perform a banking role for many people, and so are still regarded as the cornerstone of the community, but in the towns and cities it's no longer the case. Driving tax discs are now done on-line or by post, as are Savings products. Even Post Office Ltd now sells its products on-line.

That pretty much leaves Royal Mail - much of which must still be done through a Post Office, especially if (as at Christmas) you are sending it abroad. Ebay has been a lifesaver for some outlets, but selling stamps has never been that profitable. Handling licence applications is still good business, but hard work - as I can testify, having stood in a long queue while the staff member wearily explains to the customer that they have filled in the form wrongly, or forgotten to bring in some key piece of documentation, or both.

The Post Office is beginning to sell other services, like Bureau de Change (and they do offer excellent rates), insurance and even telephone services and broadband. But if the sales environment is anything like my local branch in Earl's Court, that's a hard task. (Things are rather nicer in Kensington, but then they would be, wouldn't they?)

But back to the politics. The plans - by the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform - to shut 2,500 post offices have been undermined by the disclosure that one in five of all ministers, and seven members of the Cabinet, have joined campaigns to save specific local branches. Unsurprisingly, the Conservatives - many of whom represent rural constituencies, which have either lost their Post Offices, or risk losing the few remaining - have latched onto this fulsomely, accusing Ministers of hypocrisy, and of trying to save those in Labour constituencies while closing offices in those held by its opponents. All great stuff. Doubtless, the pundits will have a great time, mapping closures against constituencies...

In the meantime, I now have to go to post a letter by Recorded Delivery (I think the marketing people have called it, "Signed for.."), so must leave you to make a quick walk, and possibly a long queue, at my local office. Sadly, there's not a cotton-wool snowman or a tissue-paper duckling to admire while I wait...

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