Future of rural post offices hang in balance as ministers consider changeadmin September 25, 2019 0 COMMENTS
“ACRE would be opposed to any dilution of the accessibility criteria for rural post office provision. Rural post offices play a crucial role in providing access to services whilst also offering a vital social function.”Postal unions plan to deliver up to 100,000 signed postcards to Mr Clark’s office protesting against any dilution of the criteria on December 19, two days before the consultation closes.Dave Ward, the Communication and Workers’ Union’s general secretary, said the possible closure programme “represents the biggest ever threat to the future of both High Street and rural Post Offices.“Almost 50,000 people across the UK have already backed this position through our postcard campaign and these numbers are rising by the day.”Labour also attacked the plans. Gill Furniss, the shadow postal affairs minister, said: “The Government’s consultation could precipitate the loss of over half of all rural post offices.“This would be nothing short of a disaster for rural communities which are already treated as second class when it comes to service provision.“Post offices are often the only local contact point for elderly, disabled and vulnerable people in rural areas.”George Thomson, the head of the National Federation of Sub-Postmasters which represents small post offices, said he had told Margot James, the Post Office minister, that a “degree of subsidy was essential”.But he said: “None of the country wants a significant reduction in the rural post office network and that would happen if the subsidy was not continued.”He said that the current criteria “is roughly right” in terms of difference and believed that the size of the network was sustainable.A Business, Energy and Industrial department spokesman said: “Our consultation has nothing to do with closing branches.“We recognise the importance of the Post Office in the community, which is why 93 per cent of the population live within a mile of a branch.“Between 2010 and 2018 we will have invested nearly £2billion in modernising and maintaining the network.”Sources said that the investment “had led to an extra 200,000 opening hours a week across the network with nearly 4,000 branches open on Sundays”.Annual losses had been cut from £119million in 2012 to £25million last year while the network’s subsidy fell from £210million in 2012 to £80million last year.A Post Office spokesman said that consultation was part of the Government’s application to the European Union to continue the state aid to the network.He said: “The Post Office has a long term strategy to secure the post office network for the next generation and for generations to come.“Not only are we transforming that network with 7,000 branches transformed in the past four years we are reducing the burden on the taxpayer and will become a profitable business.“The company has a central commitment that businesses in every part of the country are served by post offices where they are needed.“We have an absolute commitment to serve customers in the places where they are and where they want post office services.” This would be nothing short of a disaster for rural communities which are already treated as second class when it comes to service provisionGeorge Thomson The Post Office and village stores in the Cotswold village of Coln St Aldwyns, GloucestershireCredit:Alamy Stock Photo Tom Fyans, director of campaigns and policy at the Campaign to Protect Rural England, said: “Post offices are pillars of rural life. They are popular with many, and vital for even more. They keep villages busy and maintain their sense of community.“The Government has pledged to protect less than half of existing rural post offices, so any change in criteria leaves more than 3,000 rural post offices with an uncertain future.“Ministers must endeavour to protect the bricks and mortar of our rural services alongside any innovation, and support a service that is indispensable to a thriving, living countryside.”Richard Quallington, the interim chief executive of Action with Communities in Rural England, added: “Rural post offices provide a lifeline for the elderly and those isolated by lack of transport.“Any government proposals must be ‘rural proofed’ to ensure that people, and especially those in greatest need, are not disadvantaged by any changes in provision. A typical village Post Office in Grassington, North YorkshireCredit: Ian Dagnall / Alamy The 2015 Conservative manifesto committed the party to “secure the future of 3,000 rural Post Offices”, leaving a question-mark over the remaining branches, including 3,300 in the countryside.The Post Office is required by the Government to guarantee that 95 per cent of the rural population must be within three miles of a branch.However ministers have now ordered a review to help them “to understand consumers’ and businesses’ expectations for what the network should look like and how it should be operated”.They said that while they do not “propose changing the criteria that define what a nationwide network of post offices should look like” they want to understand whether the criteria “remain relevant” and whether “a different approach should be considered”.The review, which closes next week on December 21, has sparked alarm among rural campaigners and unions who are concerned that the criteria could be amended to close more branches.Greg Clark, the Business secretary, could be quizzed about the plans when he appears in front of an influential committee of MPs this week. Thousands of rural post offices are under threat after ministers said they wanted to review strict rules that require the majority of those living in the countryside to have a branch within three miles.Ministers said they are examining whether the vital criteria which determine which villages have post offices are “relevant” just 18 months before an £80million a year subsidy could be cut.The Government’s existing subsidy for the 11,500-strong network ends in March 2018 which means there is uncertainty about unprofitable areas of the network. Want the best of The Telegraph direct to your email and WhatsApp? Sign up to our free twice-daily Front Page newsletter and new audio briefings.