Postman Pat's days are past - let him retire gracefully

'As a commercial proposition, he is as unsustainable as the milkman and the coalman'
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The Independent Online

As a member of Parliament during a period before the advent of faxes and e-mails, the post ruled my life. There was never a day when there was not a nasty bundle of mail awaiting my collection from the Members' Post Office. How MPs yearned for a postal strike in the belief that it would ease their workload. On one of the many occasions that there was such a strike, I chose the opportunity to go away on holiday. By the time I returned, the strike was still in progress and I expected little in the way of paperwork backlog.

Imagine my surprise when my agent handed me a huge bundle of mail, hand-delivered to my constituency office. On my return home, the letterbox was jammed with similar items. It suddenly occurred to me that my constituents could live easily without the Post Office, and I became a firm supporter of privatisation. But I recognised, even then, that this must also mean an end to the universal letterbox delivery system. Unfortunately, I and like-minded colleagues could never persuade Margaret Thatcher. For all her radicalism, she was hooked on a notion that it was the "royal" mail and politicians could never mess with it.

So for years, various think tanks within the Conservative Party dallied inconclusively with various options between lifting the monopoly to allow competition and full-blown privatisation. Even Michael Heseltine, subsequently trade and industry secretary, considered the idea. It always foundered, however, on how to address the difficulty of delivering mail at the same price to all parts of the country.

By the time the last Tory government got round to devoting any serious attention to the issue, there was no majority in the Commons to put through such controversial legislation. Reeling from the fallout from rail privatisation, Tory MPs had lost the appetite for a further battle that would have incurred additional unpopularity prior to the 1997 general election. They thought that, if even Margaret Thatcher had baulked at a "privatisation too far", what was the point of a demoralised Major government running the risk of embarrassing defeats in the division lobbies?

So Labour came to power with one of the last great nationalised industries still firmly under state control. Labour know that the present system is falling apart, and are rightly unwilling to subsidise the current horrendous losses now being incurred by Consignia. But they have no idea how to allow a state corporation to have commercial freedom within the confines of state control. Such a concept is, of course, a contradiction, and is unworkable. The Tories are now, once again, in favour of privatisation, but deplore suggestions that the morning-delivery guarantee might be abandoned. But this guarantee is impossible if there is either competition or privatisation.

Both parties' positions are untenable, and a fraud on the electors. If a daily delivery letter service to all points of the country from John O'Groats to Land's End at a universal price is to be provided, it can only be done by a monopoly, nationalised, loss-making system with a taxpayer's subsidy. In such circumstances, it is impossible for this system to sit alongside greater commercial freedom. Equally, the Tories must face up to the conclusion that, under their proposals, it will be impossible to maintain the daily delivery service at a universal standard price.

It is time for the politicians, on all sides, to confront the public with the brutal truth that a universal mail delivery at a standard price has had its day, and that it is no business of government or its agencies to be involved in such an activity. In every other system of distribution, most notably food, the public has largely chosen, through the dynamics of the market, to dispense with doorstep delivery – or decided to pay the extra costs if they want such a luxury.

I recall, as a child, that there was always some regular trader hammering at the door. The baker came on Mondays, Wednesday and Friday. The butcher came on Friday, the grocer on Tuesday, and the milkman and the newspaper boy arrived every day. Today, all – even the milkman – are virtually a thing of the past. Customers have voted with their feet to collect their own provisions themselves from their own suppliers. No government was involved in any of these changes.

Society has evolved with the market place, and the desire of consumers to shop around; customers willingly choose to forgo the convenience of doorstep delivery in favour of the supermarket run. No doubt if food distribution had been nationalised we would still be having interminable arguments as to whether daily deliveries of bread and milk should be subsidised at taxpayers' expense.

So why do we still accept that post vans and postmen, which are legacies of our Victorian past, should still traipse to every address in the land? It is time for the public and the politicians to face up to the obvious. If Rowland Hill, who invented the system 160 or so years ago, were to return to earth he would be horrified that his once-revolutionary system of communication had not kept pace with technology. What would he make of the e-mail, the fax, the telephone and the text message? He would surely be the first to say that in such circumstances the day of the traditional postman and universal daily letterbox delivery service was done.

The post-box hire system is a much more efficient way for us to distribute what remains of the declining number of paper items we still need to deliver to each other. Most people would surely prefer the convenience of calling, at their convenience, at a collection point in their town or village, at the time of day to suit themselves. If we knew that our mail could be properly collected from a sorting office, newsagents, village shop, or even the doctor's surgery, where we could pay an annual charge for the hire of a box, many of us would be willing to collect our own mail, at our own convenience.

With internet access now available to 40 per cent of households (rising from virtually nothing in just five years or so), it can only be a matter of another five to 10 years before nearly every household is on-line. At that point, regular bills such as gas, electricity and telephone will not need to be physically sent to individual households. No one in their right mind now trusts the conventional postal system for documents of value.

Sometimes we allow ourselves to be ruled by the mythical little old lady living alone in the back of beyond who must, according to the politicians, be the sole reason for maintaining an outdated 160-year-old system of communication. But the little old lady probably shouts even louder about the desire to collect her pension from the village sub-post office rather than have it paid into a bank account. Fine. So why can't she collect her letters from a mailbox from the sub-post office at the same time?

Postman Pat, as a commercial proposition, is as unsustainable as the milkman or the coalman. He should be allowed to wither – the long-term consequence, anyway, of yesterday's decision by Postcomm to lift the monopoly.

mrbrown@pimlico.freeserve.co.uk

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