Rural post offices are the heart of village life

Some branches would not make money even if they sold sex toys, but that is not the point
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The Independent Online

The Post Office is the business equivalent of Courtney Love - out of control, and in five minds about what image to present to the public. Ordered by government to make a profit, its executives have set about diversifying into everything except getting letters delivered and on time. I could bore you with my own stories of packages going missing and endless calls to customer services, but I am sure that you, dear reader, are bound to have an equally frustrating horror story. And I won't even elaborate on the comical moment a couple of weeks ago when a letter informed me that unless I paid £162 within two days, my redirection service would cease - and it was sent to the wrong address.

The Post Office is the business equivalent of Courtney Love - out of control, and in five minds about what image to present to the public. Ordered by government to make a profit, its executives have set about diversifying into everything except getting letters delivered and on time. I could bore you with my own stories of packages going missing and endless calls to customer services, but I am sure that you, dear reader, are bound to have an equally frustrating horror story. And I won't even elaborate on the comical moment a couple of weeks ago when a letter informed me that unless I paid £162 within two days, my redirection service would cease - and it was sent to the wrong address.

I don't stand on ceremony either when it comes to receiving replies to my complaints; I'm not bothered that various departments within the Royal Mail have written to me as Mrs Parker, Mr Pooter and Ms Potter, and at a whole range of versions of my actual address (even taking issue with me about my own postcode), because deep down I realise that the organisation is having a nervous breakdown, and complaining is no guarantee of results.

In fact the more you whinge about the post, the more your own health suffers. The current set of problems seems to have started when deliveries were reduced to one a day. Now a postie driving a van rings my doorbell about twice a week because my postwoman can't carry all her allotted load. He does a drive-by and drops off "heavy" items - which could just be a normal hardback book.

In the last week stories have appeared in the press claiming that the Royal Mail is seeking to charge extra for larger items, regardless of weight, and wants to impose surcharges for items posted to destinations outside a local area. This, if permitted, would mean the end of a basic service provided ever since the days of the Penny Black. So if the Post Office now want to charge all these different rates (in order to make money), what is their idea of "customer service"?

I did not think that their core business was offering car insurance, which they started to do four weeks ago, or to bore me rigid with jolly videos while I stand in a queue. I suspect that a lot of the so-called improvements and new services offered by the Post Office are all part of a long-term strategy towards privatisation.

The Royal Mail is predicted to make a profit of around £400m this year, but at a time when staff morale has never been lower and the number of disgruntled customers has risen dramatically. They failed to meet 15 out of 15 of their service targets the other month, but that didn't prevent the big cheeses who run this unhappy organisation awarding themselves huge bonuses. So the rumour that the Government has decided to extend the subsidy that funds the loss-making rural post offices for another two years, at a cost of £300m, is extremely good news. Quite rightly, someone has realised that closing down up to 30 per cent of the 8,000 rural post offices was a major general election vote loser.

Now that the Royal Mail faces losing its exclusive right to deliver mail, it is time for the Government to stop treating the Post Office like a biscuit factory which has to return a profit or be savagely cut, and start nurturing a service which is part of our national psyche. Just like the NHS, the Royal Mail plays a unique part in the community. I am sure that many of its branches will never make money, whether they sell car insurance or sex toys, but that's not the point.

Rural post offices are the heart of village life, and rather than merely extend their subsidy for two years, it would be a better use of lottery money to ensure their permanent survival. Adam Crozier, the Royal Mail's chief executive, has said they are losing 5p on every first-class letter they deliver. Like railway branch lines, running a service which delivers mail all over Britain and operates thousands of tiny branches in far flung corners of the country is never going to be a business which lends itself to streamlining and cost effectiveness. People who live in rural areas have already seen cottage hospitals close as health care is centralised. Rural police stations have shut, with emergency help now often a 30-minute drive away. Railway branch lines were axed by Beeching, and now local bus services, since privatisation, have seen ruthless pruning too.

Mr Prescott may be keen on regional assemblies, but there's more to life outside London than another layer of expensive decision-making. Labour must realise that they do have to subsidise rural services - not only are businesses (their own departments included) relocating away from major cities, but over the next 10 years more and more people will be working from home. This is not only environmentally friendly, reducing commuter traffic, but in the end will result in a happier, less stressed population. So can we please protect our postal service, and not penalise those who don't have the correct (ie profitable) postcode?

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