Consuming Issues: The Royal Mail is still delivering first-class service

Where are the bargains in 21st-century Britain? While bloated banks and energy suppliers offer poor service and high prices, there are plenty of excellent value goods and services, although they often benefit from dubious discounts such as free environmental damage or sweatshop labour. Among them are low-cost airlines which fly people at 36,000ft for the price of a DVD box set. Last year, an average Ryanair flight cost £44.93, from which the carrier made about £5.

Other bargains are cars (because of a global glut) and consumer electronics made by low-paid Chinese – a good 32-inch HD TV set can be had for £400; a decade ago an inferior set would have cost £1,000.

On a smaller scale is the 41p first-class stamp. Charles I created the postal service in 1635 but not many people have a good word to say about it in 2010. The second daily delivery was scrapped six years ago, resulting in letters often arriving in the afternoon. Second, the price of a stamp has kept rising, and went up another 2p in April. Third, the business has been in a state of constant industrial strife which erupted in a strike that sealed pillar boxes last year. Finally, many people find it quicker and cheaper to email; the number of letters sent is falling annually. So why is a 24mm x 21mm stamp a bargain?

It's helpful to admire the logistics of the postal system. Using a network of sorting offices, trains, trucks and bicycles, 140,000 staff deliver 75 million letters and parcels to 28 million homes and businesses daily. The post is also a universal service. Delivering a letter to a rural area costs more than delivering one in a city, yet a stamp costs 41p regardless of whether a letter is sent 87 yards or 874 miles from Cornwall to the nothern tip of Scotland. Email is quicker, but electronic messages don't display the personal touch of a letter, a 50th birthday card or a seaside postcard, and nor can the versatile internet deliver parcels.

OK, you might say, all postal systems work like this, but is Britain's any better or worse than, say, Germany or Spain's? It probably depends whether you view Royal Mail as customer or owner. In December 2008, an Ofcom executive, Richard Hooper, published his Government-commissioned review of the business, which is owned 100 per cent by the taxpayer. He concluded that while we should retain the universal service, which he described as "part of our economic and social glue", the Royal Mail needed reform by a private-sector partner. He said it used too little sorting technology and was less efficient and less profitable than its European peers.

Now this inefficiency and low profitability sounds pretty bad, doesn't it? But despite the moans, the customer gets a pretty good deal. In March, Germany's Deutsche Post released a comparison of European postal services. The UK's first-class stamp was the ninth-cheapest of 29 European nations – dearer only than Austria, Italy, the Czech Republic, Spain, Estonia, Cyprus, Romania and Malta. Adding in labour costs which take account of the relative national wealth, Royal Mail was the fourth-cheapest service in Europe.

This cheapness is partly because of the low pay of its workforce: the average postie earns £17,726, way below the UK median wage of £25,428. Admittedly, it is low skilled work, but it requires rising at dawn and working in all weathers. Rival firms such as TNT and UKMail, which cream off business mail while leaving Royal Mail carrying the burden of "last mile" delivery – pay their non-unionised people less, according to the Communication Workers' Union.

As to performance, the Royal Mail regularly hits the regulator Postcomm's target of delivering 93 per cent of first-class post by the next day and 98.5 per cent of second-class letters within three days. Ninety-nine in 100 letters are delivered correctly.

How long we keep this low-cost performance is in doubt, though. There is a feeling in Whitehall that the Royal Mail isn't up to much. This autumn, the Coalition is expected to press ahead with plans for "an injection of private capital", while retaining the universal service, and keeping the post office network in public hands. In calling for semi-privatisation two years ago, Mr Hooper published a table showing Royal Mail's 2007 operating margin of 0 per cent was the lowest of 13 western European countries. Undoubtedly, it needs modernisation, on which the CWU and management agree.

Instead of expecting the Royal Mail to perform like a private firm, perhaps we should view it as a public service like the NHS: a communications rather a health service staffed by low-paid workers who do a great job, cheaply. Probably as many people whinge about the mail as they do about the NHS, but sometimes you don't know the value of something until it's gone.

A 1930 image of the Karl Albrecht Spiritousen and Lebensmittel shop, Essen. The shop was opened by Karl and Theo Albrecht’s mother; the brothers later founded Aldi
Arts and Entertainment
Standing the test of time: Michael J Fox and Christopher Lloyd in 'Back to the Future'
filmA cult movie event aims to immerse audiences of 80,000 in ‘Back to the Future’. But has it lost its magic?
Arts and Entertainment
Flora Spencer-Longhurst as Lavinia, William Houston as Titus Andronicus and Dyfan Dwyfor as Lucius
theatreThe Shakespeare play that proved too much for more than 100 people
exclusivePunk icon Viv Albertine on Sid Vicious, complacent white men, and why free love led to rape
Arts and Entertainment
Stir crazy: Noel Fielding in 'Luxury Comedy 2: Tales from Painted Hawaii'
comedyAs ‘Luxury Comedy’ returns, Noel Fielding on why mainstream success scares him and what the future holds for 'The Boosh'
Life and Style
Flow chart: Karl Landsteiner discovered blood types in 1900, yet scientists have still not come up with an explanation for their existence
lifeAll of us have one. Yet even now, it’s a matter of debate what they’re for
Arts and Entertainment
'Weird Al' Yankovic, or Alfred Matthew, at the 2014 Los Angeles Film Festival Screening of
musicHis latest video is an ode to good grammar. But what do our experts think he’s missed out?
New Real Madrid signing James Rodríguez with club president Florentino Perez
sportColombian World Cup star completes £63m move to Spain
Hotel Tour d’Auvergne in Paris launches pay-what-you-want
travelIt seems fraught with financial risk, but the policy has its benefits
Arts and Entertainment
booksThe best children's books for this summer
Life and Style
News to me: family events were recorded in the personal columns
techFamily events used to be marked in the personal columns. But now Facebook has usurped that
Finacial products from our partners
Property search
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Money & Business

    Programme Director - Conduct Risk - London

    £850 - £950 per day: Orgtel: Programme Director - Conduct Risk - Banking - £85...

    Business Analyst (Agile, SDLC, software)

    £45000 - £50000 Per Annum + excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Lt...

    Finance Manager - Bank - Leeds - £300/day

    £250 - £300 per day + competitive: Orgtel: Finance Manager - Accountant - Bank...

    Compliance Officer - CF10, CF11, Compliance Oversight, AML, FX

    £100000 - £120000 per annum + BONUS + BENEFITS: Harrington Starr: A leading fi...

    Day In a Page

    Noel Fielding's 'Luxury Comedy': A land of the outright bizarre

    Noel Fielding's 'Luxury Comedy'

    A land of the outright bizarre
    What are the worst 'Word Crimes'?

    What are the worst 'Word Crimes'?

    ‘Weird Al’ Yankovic's latest video is an ode to good grammar. But what do The Independent’s experts think he’s missed out?
    Can Secret Cinema sell 80,000 'Back to the Future' tickets?

    The worst kept secret in cinema

    A cult movie event aims to immerse audiences of 80,000 in ‘Back to the Future’. But has it lost its magic?
    Facebook: The new hatched, matched and dispatched

    The new hatched, matched and dispatched

    Family events used to be marked in the personal columns. But now Facebook has usurped the ‘Births, Deaths and Marriages’ announcements
    Why do we have blood types?

    Are you my type?

    All of us have one but probably never wondered why. Yet even now, a century after blood types were discovered, it’s a matter of debate what they’re for
    Honesty box hotels: You decide how much you pay

    Honesty box hotels

    Five hotels in Paris now allow guests to pay only what they think their stay was worth. It seems fraught with financial risk, but the honesty policy has its benefit
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Why weight of pressure rests easy on Michael Jamieson’s shoulders

    Michael Jamieson: Why weight of pressure rests easy on his shoulders

    The Scottish swimmer is ready for ‘the biggest race of my life’ at the Commonwealth Games
    Some are reformed drug addicts. Some are single mums. All are on benefits. But now these so-called 'scroungers’ are fighting back

    The 'scroungers’ fight back

    The welfare claimants battling to alter stereotypes
    Amazing video shows Nasa 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action

    Fireballs in space

    Amazing video shows Nasa's 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action
    A Bible for billionaires

    A Bible for billionaires

    Find out why America's richest men are reading John Brookes
    Paranoid parenting is on the rise - and our children are suffering because of it

    Paranoid parenting is on the rise

    And our children are suffering because of it
    For sale: Island where the Magna Carta was sealed

    Magna Carta Island goes on sale

    Yours for a cool £4m
    Phone hacking scandal special report: The slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

    The hacker's tale: the slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

    Glenn Mulcaire was jailed for six months for intercepting phone messages. James Hanning tells his story in a new book. This is an extract
    We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

    We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

    Child abusers are not all the same, yet the idea of treating them differently in relation to the severity of their crimes has somehow become controversial
    The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

    The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

    For instance, did Isis kill the Israeli teenagers to trigger a war, asks Patrick Cockburn