Every month Jo Cox writes a column for The Press. This month’s column appeared in last week’s edition.
The value of our post offices, and the service and expertise they provide, is something that sadly we underestimate. And we do this at our peril.
Those who run post offices are dedicated public servants and the post offices they run are far more than just a local business. It is a remarkable and precious asset and for many it is a lifeline. No one else does quite what the post office does in the way that they do it.
I met with local subpostmasters last week and discussed some of the concerns they have about the future of the post office network. It certainly gave me plenty of issues to raise with the government in the coming weeks.
Many factors affect the fortunes of our post offices.
Like many where retail is central to their businesses, the internet has had a seismic effect on post offices. This is compounded even further due to the continuing rise of the digitalisation of our lives beyond retail and into our day to day chores.
For example, you can tax your car now without even having to leave the house. Once upon a time you had to get into your car and drive to the nearest main post office.
Stamps are cheaper online. The post office card accounts are being phased out. Pensions and benefits are paid directly. Less and less are bill payments done in person. You can pay your TV Licence from your bed or your water bill while eating your breakfast.
As society ‘goes direct’ more and more the post office’s role shrinks. However, its value doesn’t. But when post offices rely on customers walking through their doors, the more we whittle away the different transactions they can undertake the more likely the post offices will simply not survive.
These changes to the culture, technology and behaviour of shopping are no doubt a major factor behind the closure of thousands of post offices in the UK.
But the biggest is still government policy. The network has been reduced in half over the last 20 years. Much of this has been driven by the changing behaviour of customers and attempts to make sure the network can meet the modern day demands.
But it is the future not the past that worries local subpostmasters most.
The Government promised to put hundreds of millions of pounds of business the way of post offices. It has not materialised. The streams of income are constantly being eroded away. There are even incentives for post office staff to get customers to ‘go direct’. Incentives that will affectively lose that post office more customers in the longer term.
While the government says it is committed to our post offices, they are starving them of the business they need to remain afloat.
What is clear is that subpostmasters fear more closures are inevitable unless there is a change in the way government approaches this.
One of the local subpostmasters I met last week told me the story of a vulnerable woman whose home caught fire. She rang him first instead of the fire brigade.
This was because of all the people in her life she trusted him through his role in her local post office. I accept that this is a unique example but it does underline just how much value and trust people put in their post office.