Saving Post Offices
by Paul Gosling
Eventually, the size of the Post Office network will be viable at about 7,500 branches, the Government recently told the House of Commons Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Select Committee. Given that the network stands now at almost twice that size, we have an awful lot more painful branch closures to go. Despite the political rows associated with the current Post Office closure programme of up to 2,500 branches, MPs ain’t seen nothing yet when it comes to protests.
Post Offices are not just places to buy stamps and collect pensions. In rural and suburban areas, they are often the heart of the community. It is not merely that having a Post Office branch is symbolic of the health of a village – it is that the absence of one can create the reality of decline.
Most Post Office branches are located in shops that do a variety of other things, such as selling groceries. In half of cases, when the Post Office counter closes, so does the rest of the shop. Frequently, the sub-postmasters and sub-postmistresses are of an age when they welcome some financial help to support their retirement – so few resist closure proposals. As the Post Office and village store go, so other local shops find their own viability under threat – as more people accept they must jump in their car or onto the bus to go into the nearest market town or city.
But many of those who are most dependent on local Post Offices are unable to go anywhere further. They are too old and infirm to drive, or go by bus. Essex County Council fears that these village residents will recognise that Post Office closures signify much more – an end to their independence. Instead of living in their own home, they will be forced to ask their council with help to move into residential care.
Given the high cost of such care – and the fact that people generally do not want to live in retirement homes – Essex County Council is negotiating with the Post Office to take over several branches, to reduce what it fears would otherwise be a big increase in its social care costs. It also wants to keep villages operating as functioning communities, rather than dormitory estates for the big cities and towns. Previously the council supported a Post Office move into a church. Elsewhere, Post Office branches are located in pubs and Essex council wants branches to work in tandem with the council’s own services – with Post Office services supplied from libraries and schools, for example.
A similar approach has been advocated for some time by Labour and Co-operative MP, David Drew. Speaking to Co-operative News last year, Drew presciently argued for closer involvement between Post Office branches, local councils and credit unions, to provide convenient local services, operating as social enterprises. Ironically, Conservative-controlled Essex and Kent county councils have most publicly fallen into line with Drew’s ideas.
Drew himself has been inspired by seeing the effectiveness of a social enterprise-run village shop and Post Office at North Nibley, in his Stroud constituency. Several Post Office branches are already run as community business, though the Post Office is unsure exactly how many. One of these is in Nenthead in Cumbria, which has been going as a social enterprise for six months.
Nenthead’s community initiative has been supported by Virsa – the Village Retail Services Association – which operates under the umbrella of the Plunkett Foundation. Virsa has helped 170 village shops to operate as social enterprises, most of which contain Post Offices. While Virsa provides practical help to communities trying to keep their Post Offices and shops open, it is also aided by very useful financial support. Virsa’s Village Core Programme can provide start-up assistance of £40,000 per shop, using money provided by Co-operative and Community Finance and the Esmee Fairbairn Foundation.
Elsewhere, several Post Office branches scheduled for closure have been saved in recent years by retail co-operative societies – including the Midcounties and Midlands societies – taking them over and incorporating them within local stores.
Drew hopes that the social enterprise sector can play a role in helping communities across the country understand how they can develop alternatives to Post Office branch closures – and perhaps even develop a co-operative to provide common management services nationally across this potentially significant sector.
The real problem in making an impact on the current closure programme is that the Post Office is operating a mere six week consultation process – which Drew describes as “nuts”. Local authorities are equally unhappy, because this gives them too little time to develop proposals to keep branches open. The Post Office defends itself from the criticism, saying the consultation period was imposed by the Government.
Even if that consultation period is insufficient for plans to be worked up in many areas regarding the current closure programme, communities that are currently spared can take the opportunity to start planning for the future. With another 4,300 branches likely to close in the coming years, there is an awful lot of villages and suburbs that will yet be hit.