IS £150M ENOUGH TO KEEP OUR RURAL POST OFFICES OPEN?
Post offices have rarely been out of the news recently with campaigns to keep them open. Now it’s the turn of rural post offices which have had a £150m a year lifeline by the Government extended, but is it enough to keep them going? Deborah Bowyer investigates…
IT’S Monday morning in a quiet village a few miles north of Lincoln. Doors are open as usual at the village post office.
Sub-postmaster, Lester Tyler, is checking his stock and ensuring he’s ready for the day’s customers.
Mr Tyler has his regular flow of customers from villagers posting parcels or buying stamps to those just popping in for a brief chat.
Mr Tyler, who was a senior manager in industry, took over Fiskerton post office 15 months ago.
He says the post office has a loyal following in the village but the loss of business due to the direct payment of pensions and other benefits cannot be underestimated.
Mr Tyler says new initiatives like offering banking services, travel insurance and top-ups for mobile phones are helping but outside support for rural post offices is important.
“Rural post offices like this one are a service to the community and this is important.
“There must be social benefits to keeping a post office in a village. We deal with an awful lot of people and we are a point of contact for many.”
A rural post office is defined as one in an area with 10,000 people or fewer.
The Government announced recently that it is extending its support package for rural post offices, like Fiskerton, for a further two years.
The current three year package – worth Â£450 million – was intended as a transitional measure, designed to help rural post offices through the changes in the network’s business between 2003 and 2006.
The Government says it has decided to extend the funding to 2008, amounting to a subsidy of Â£150m a year, to “allow sufficient time for lessons to be learned from the pilots’ activities testing new ways of delivering services in rural areas”.
It says the lessons that will emerge from these pilots over the next 12-18 months will be crucial in informing longer-term decisions about the future shape of the rural post office network.
“This will allow well-informed decisions to be taken in good time to ensure that access to post office services for those living in rural communities can be maintained on a more sustainable basis,” said a spokesman.
“There are already examples of communities pulling together to keep post office services in their villages and innovative ways of delivering services are emerging throughout the country.
“Post Office Ltd’s pilot work will allow us to clearn from these and build on them as we move forward to a more responsive and flexible post office network.”
New sub-postmistress, Amanda Eastwood, is grateful for the help which she has received to set up Martin post office near Woodhall Spa.
The 34-year-old has received help with set-up costs for the post office, situated in Smalley’s shop in the village.
Mrs Eastwood has renovated the shop which had been used as a car showroom and then a storage room for most of the past four decades.
Mrs Eastwood’s husband will continue to run Smalley and Son garage services.
Smalley’s includes a general village store selling groceries and giftware as well as an off-licence and delicatessen counter.
Mrs Eastwood is being paid ‘community hours’, 19 hours a week, to open the post office but she says she will open outside these hours and work unpaid if customers require it.
“If they come in to buy some groceries, they may want to use the post office services at the same time.”
Mrs Eastwood, who only opened the business recently, says she would struggle if it was just a post office.
“You need to offer a package nowadays. People like to be able to do more than one thing at a time.”
Trade and Industry Secretary Patricia Hewitt has pledged support for rural post offices.
She said: “We are fully committed to ensuring that those living in rural communities have access to the services they need, including post office services.
“But the rural post office network continues to face real challenges.
“For many individual offices, the number of customers they serve is simply too small to make the business attractive or sustainable.
“As people access services in different ways, new ways to deliver services more efficiently and effectively are clearly needed.
“It is vital that we continue to support the network through these challenges.
“It is also clear from Postcomm’s advice to us that without Government funding, much of the current rural network would face closure.
“This new money will also give Post Office Ltd time to develop and test new ways to meet the changing needs of its customers.”
But Lincolnshire’s regional representative for the National Federation of SubPostmasters, David Milner, believes the Government could do more to help rural post offices.
He said: “Individuals who have invested their own money into the network want the work and want to get paid for doing it.
“Customers rely on sub post masters and mistresses for help and advice, a service which is unpaid.
“The help which the Government is giving doesn’t recognise the additional work which rural post offices do”
Michael Self, Lincolnshire regional organiser for the Federation of Small Businesses (FSB), says the rural subsidy should be extended further, beyond 2008.
“Rural post offices are the lifeblood of small communities and need all the help they can get,” he said.
“The FSB is keen for the Government to extend its subsidy to rural post offices until 2008 because they are so important to these local communities.
“Every little bit of help towards staying in business is going to be welcomed.”
He continued: “It gets ever more difficult for small retailers – and especially rural post offices – to stay in business.
“They’re under great pressure from the big retailers; they’re hammered by Government over-regulation, pressured by health and safety and other officials and crushed by business rates.
“Rural communities need a local post office close to them, they’ve always been a service to the community and that is even more so today when centralisation seems to be the watchword.
“Local people want local services and very few are more important to them than their local post office.
“The FSB feels that it is very important that the Government subsidy to help these rural post offices to survive is continued until at least 2008, if not longer.”