Just back from an excellent meeting about Littleton Post Office in Littleton Village Hall – exceptionally well chaired – and very constructive. Around 200 people were there to question two senior post office managers about the plans to close Littleton Post Office.
A wide range of very strong points were made challenging the assumptions behind the proposed closure – particularly the assumptions made by the Post Office about how easy it would be for people using public transport to get from Littleton to Stoney Lane, the assumptions about how easy it is to get there on foot and the assumptions about how easy it would be for people who use cars to park and use the Post Office (particularly while Waitrose is being built).
Someone asked the question about what would happen if the Stoney Lane Co-op went under as a result of Waitrose opening – a particularly apposite question given the recent closure of the Co-op owned Alldays in Chandler’s Ford and the resultant loss of the Post Office. (In practice, the experience from Chandler’s Ford is that they would be compelled to find a replacement – but it takes time – and if something similar happened to Stoney Lane, there would almost certainly be no Post Office in Weeke for several months).
Another rich vein of questioning related to how the head office costs are allocated to sub-post-offices – and whether local funding could have a role in keeping the post office open. Are 10,000 out of 14,000 sub-post-offices really unprofitable – or does it reflect the way they allocate costs between Post Offices – or between the Royal Mail and the Post Office? (Once this line of questioning got going, someone warned the post office spokespeople that there are a lot of accountants in Littleton!) How much subsidy would it really take to keep the Post Office open? Anyone who’s spent time in corporate life knows how changes in accounting policy can have a dramatic effect on the apparent profitability of a given business unit.
I’d also like to see further exploration of how Post Offices could be used as general access points for all government services – not just national services – but local services as well. Are there other businesses or services (including charities) that the post office could front? I discussed this briefly with Post Office management at the end of the meeting. There were some trials on this at the start of the decade, but the ones I’ve found seem to have restricted themselves mainly to information provision rather than actually providing services (for example, payments handling or document checking). This is not a question we can answer by the end of the consultation, but is definitely a policy idea I intend to keep working at.
There was also a discussion about the plan to put the Post Office into Smiths. The Post Office made it clear how forcefully Mark Oaten had stated his concerns during the recent meeting I attended with them in the House of Commons. Everyone who spoke at the meeting was in a very similar place.
Finally though, once we cut through all the arguments about the assumptions behind closure, there remained a core issue. Why are we cutting back our post office network so sharply in the first place? Many speakers highlighted the social role of the post office and the sub-postmaster or (in Littleton’s case) sub-postmistress. In many cases (including Littleton) loss of the post office means the loss of the last shop in the village. Combined with the Conservatives’ brutal cuts in local public transport, it leaves the elderly, the young and those without access to cars more isolated than ever. The chair of the meeting rightly captured and dealt with this issue at the beginning of the meeting so that it didn’t throw the rest of the meeting off track – but no-one should underestimate the undercurrent of real anger there was towards the policies that have led to the threatened closure of Littleton Post Office in the first place.