The Post Office is one of the best-loved institutions in the country, and that isn’t just because of the formal services the network provides.
A House of Commons Business Select Committee report (2009) on the future of the Post Office stated that one of the main reasons people really care about the network is because of its role in the community. The committee said the Post Office is important because it “provides services to the total community” and “is an instrument of social cohesion”.
But, as the committee pointed out, this is the post office network’s most ill-defined role, and the one least reflected in the network’s finances and subpostmasters’ incomes.
New research from the National Federation of SubPostmasters (NFSP) articulates this role, and reveals the many vital services provided by post offices that are often overlooked or taken for granted.
There are 11,500 post offices in the UK, and the findings show over nine in ten play an important role in providing access to pensions and benefits for local residents. Three quarters of post offices regularly offer informal support and advice about official government, council and utility documents. This can range from providing forms, assistance with form filling and explaining official letters to making phone calls on behalf of customers.
Nearly all post offices play a crucial role in tackling isolation; for many vulnerable customers the visit to the post office is their only regular trip out of the house and only interaction with other people in the week. In addition, 85 per cent of subpostmasters provide an ‘unofficial alert system’, checking the wellbeing of vulnerable members of the community.
As the banks close branches on high streets and in villages, post offices are often the sole outlet left in the community providing access to cash and banking. The research finds 57 per cent of post offices are the only place offering local free cash withdrawals and banking facilities.
And more than eight in 10 post offices support local small businesses by advising on mail, cash and banking services – many to more than 100 regular business customers.
On top of this, 94 per cent of subpostmasters say they have an important role in providing a focal point for their local community. This may simply be providing a venue to meet friends and other local residents; but post offices also take a very active part in promoting local events and groups, providing prescription collection services and delivering groceries to customers who are unwell. Some subpostmasters also provide ad hoc community services way beyond anything that could possibly be expected of them in their official capacity, such as lending out tools, taking dogs to the vet and visiting customers in hospital.
Post offices are rarely out of the headlines or off the political agenda for long. Recently the local press has been full of stories of MPs opening newly refurbished post offices, with longer opening hours. But subpostmasters’ Post Office income has dropped dramatically in recent years; and subpostmasters are finding it ever more difficult to maintain their businesses.
Coalition government plans for securing the future of the Post Office propose substantial revenue increases by expanding the number of government and financial services provided through the network. But subpostmasters remain deeply concerned that these plans, originally articulated in November 2010, still show few signs of coming to fruition.
The Fabian Society’s own study also concludes that government action is urgently required to prevent the future collapse of the post office network. As well as calling on the government to provide more public services through the Post Office and support the growth of its financial services, the Fabian Society urges caution over government plans to reduce the network’s public subsidy. Crucially, the Fabian Society also concludes that following the partial privatisation of Royal Mail, the government should retain its remaining 38 per cent share in order to secure the company’s relationship with the now separate Post Office.
This new research from the NFSP shows just how much community support risks being lost, if the government does not take significant steps to ensure post offices have new services to offer customers – providing new sources of revenue and enabling subpostmasters to keep their post offices open.