The Post Office closure programme seems to be rolling ahead, with little more than an appearance of public consultation. To be fair, there is public consultation, and some 100,000 communications have been sent in, but these have only changed 4% of the planned closures - 2,481 offices are still going to close.
The inconvenience of this to many older people is obvious, and groups such as Help the Aged are rightly pointing out that when the Post Office say that most of these people are within 3 miles of a Post Office, this is not always helpful. For the frail elderly, this is rather like the suggestion that people who have no bread should eat cake instead.
However, I am not sure that the case for Post Offices should be made by appealing to pictures of the frail elderly. I used to give money to Help the Aged, and every so often I get a leaky ballpoint pen from them, and a request for more money. I may use the pen to write to the company who set up an annuity for me, to tell them that their free binoculars don’t work, but then I’ll have to go to the Post Office, which is indeed further away than it used to be.
My own feeling is that the Post Offices have been their own worst enemy for years. I did research on Post Office users some years ago, and I remember one person asking what other organization, faced with long queues in their branches, would decide that the solution was to put up TV screens and run advertising to ‘entertain’ the queues. The row of ‘Position Closed’ notices, with staff sitting behind them adding things up, is infuriating - one just wonders why they don’t do that after they are closed altogether. My local branch had a ‘use it or lose it’ poster, which was faintly insulting when one had to queue for ten minutes to buy some stamps.
Service levels have been poor at many branches, and it is no surprise that many people, given the alternative of on-line services, opt not to go into the branch and join the queues, regardless of the level of in-queue entertainment. Not even if they offer clowns and jugglers.
If service levels were raised, some automation introduced (remember years ago that there were always stamp book machines, which never seemed to work?), then perhaps branches would be better used. Automation has worked in banks, and many public libraries have made a great success out of public-access computer terminals, surely a natural for the Post Office.
However, should they be judged purely on profitability? There seems to have been no attempt to examine the social value of the branches. In many rural locations, Post Offices hold together the local shop, which in turn allows people to buy some goods without driving to the supermarket. One of our local small Post Offices has a clutch of farm gate and house gate outlets selling vegetables, eggs and meat; take away the Post Office, and I suspect that those outlets will disappear as well.
So, the existence of Post Office branches can cut down car usage, help local economies, probably keep people a bit healthier, reduce the ‘food miles’ on many products (I still struggle with why our Tesco sells asparagus from Peru when the asparagus farm down the road has it fresh at half the price), as well as performing a serious job of giving a focus to communities. It really does feel as though a narrow focus on the profit and loss account of the individual branches has blinded government to the broader value of the service. It is a lesson we should have learned from the destruction of the rail infrastructure resulting from the Beeching report.