Redirected to the nearest supermarket

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The Independent Online
A RAINHAT over her beret, her handbag on the counter, airmail letters in one hand and an open envelope in the other, a customer is conducting an intimate international transaction.

She wants to put a postal order in the pristine envelope for a relative on the other side of the world. The transaction involves explanations and reassurances - another example of the public enterprise uniquely provided by the Post Office.

The Post Office is a relic of public service, a symbolic place, whose sole interest is the public itself. Ms Rainhat is a typical customer, with connections and communications to make, a local and global person, intrepid and needy.

However, her twilight years are synchronised with the slow death, or rather destruction, of the Post Office itself. In the North- east of England, townships such as Alnwick, Berwick, Jarrow and Blaydon, soon to be followed by Hexham and Peterlee, have lost their main high street post offices, and thus a part of their civic landscape.

No, the Post Office is not being privatised. Nor is it being closed. No, there has been no Act of Parliament passed while you were on holiday or in hospital.

And yet something big is happening. The Post Office is in effect being both privatised and closed; it is being handed over to the supermarkets.

When asked about the process by which this public institution is being relocated within private space, the headquarters of Post Office Counters Ltd in London insisted that individual branches were never relocated without the customers' consent. 'It depends on what best serves the interests of the customers in a particular area,' a spokesperson explained. What determines customers' interests? Customers? 'Oh yes, that is the criterion.'

This was achieved by a survey. 'If a survey shows that it is more appropriate to franchise the Post Office in a newly opened retail outlet, then it will do so.'

The spokesperson later corrected this: there are no formal surveys, he explained, although individual managers may informally consult customers.

Well. My post office is about to be relocated into an old Presto store. There has been no customer survey or consultation. Earlier this year we were told that our post office would be moving to Presto - and that was it.

Post Office headquarters emphatically denies that the Department of Trade and Industry has anything to do with the process, or that it has been involved in setting targets. But the Union of Communications Workers has in its possession a letter from the North Thames and East Anglia regional manager, explaining that up to 90 main offices will be closed in the region over the next three years. 'This coincides with our current target agreed with the Department of Trade and Industry,' the letter says.

The Post Office Users' Council acknowledged that if there were a referendum among customers, the result would probably an expression of outrage. But since the council is not in principle opposed to this process of privatisation, it has not sought to mobilise the users whom it represents.

Often it is persuaded that the franchised service is better than that provided by the Post Office itself, because supermarkets' hours are more user-friendly than office hours. But when asked if it had considered extending main post office hours, the Post Office admitted that it had not.

The Union of Communications Workers is opposed to this process, though it would not oppose a longer day and expanded business. But if the trade union movement has emerged leaner from the years of Thatcherism, it seems no fitter at conducting community campaigns than it ever was: coalitions with users seem to emerge only where jobs are at stake; where redeployment or retirement deals satisfy staff, that is the end of that particular post office.

The fate of the Post Office confirms the collapse of the political realm as a resource for poor people. The city post office has become a symbolic location primarily for the pauperised, the elderly and mothers. For them it is a provider of financial services: this morning's customers at my soon-to-disappear high street post office were almost exclusively people who pushed a benefit book, pension book or family allowance book over the counter. Many bought television and telephone stamps at the same time. They saved as they were paid.

As the agent for the Department of Employment and Department of Social Security, public utilities and vehicle licensing, the bulk of the Post Office's business involves benefits and income derived from government departments. The more privileged portion of the population conducts most of its postal and financial affairs elsewhere. It seems it has no personal or political stake in the Post Office.

What has not been imagined is a proactive defence of the Post Office as a profitable public service driven by a dynamic and democratic discipline of service - one that promotes that idea, and takes responsibility for the local landscape, for customer convenience and innovative financial services. Why can't the post office stay open until 8pm? Why can't it sell insurance and telephones as well as stamps?

These are questions doomed to receive no answer. The Post Office has opted for modernisation as minimalism - nay, extinction. Nearly half Britain's main high street branches have gone in the past five years. There were 1,495 branches in the towns and cities in 1988; now there are 850. At that rate, by the end of the century there will be none.

(Photograph omitted)