Simon Hart: Priceless value of post offices to communities

THE news, in late October, that Royal Mail doubled its interim operating profit to £177m (from £86m last time) has come as the final insult to many rural communities.

Over the last year, post office consultations have seen about 200 branches close across Yorkshire, abandoning many isolated and elderly people in rural areas to their fate, owing to, among other things, a lack of "economic viability".

A year of rolling local consultations have seen 2,500 of the 14,000-strong post office network go, and we have good reason to fear that this is just the tip of the iceberg. Royal Mail boss Adam Crozier has gone on record to say that the "one-price-goes-anywhere" universal postal service puts "huge pressure" on Royal Mail, meaning we are now facing the breakdown of the structure of the postal service as we have known it.

At no point was the social worth of the network taken into consideration. Of course, it is hard to marry up a loss-making business with a valuable social resource, but no lifeline was given, leaving a bitter taste in the mouth of many rural communities.

By systematically removing more than 168m of government contracts from the Post Office in recent years, including the TV licence contract, it almost looked like there was a government plan to actively squeeze the life out of the network and then claim closures were the only option.

By gradually pulling the rug out from under these branches, the Government has given them no chance of survival.

A loss-making business is, by definition, not succeeding, and this lack of economic viability has always been cited as the main reason behind the branch closures. We recognise that business has to succeed, and that means profit.

However, the Countryside Alliance has always said that post offices represent the heart of our rural communities and that economic concerns represent only part of the bigger picture.

Year after year, we receive impassioned nominations for our Countryside Alliance Awards, which has a "Village Shop/ Post Office" category.

People of all ages and walks of life tell us that their post office is the focal point of their community, that their village would be all the poorer without it, and that the person behind the counter doesn't just go the extra mile for their customers, they will carry them that extra mile. What price this contribution? More than stamps or parcel tape, this much we know.

We have to focus on solutions now. The question at issue is how, in the internet-shopping age, where many would rather text someone than speak to them, can rural communities remain socially and economically sustainable? During the Post Office consultation period, many simply wrote off the network, believing that the day of the village branch is over – "people clearly aren't using it, that's why it is failing. People go to supermarkets now, post offices belong in the history books".

Luckily, our Countryside Alliance Awards also have an Enterprise category.

With typical British grit, many villages who have campaigned, fought for, but ultimately lost their branch, know full well that no-one is going to help them, they are now going to have to help themselves.

Springing up all over the country now, we have community-owned-and-run shops, and a variety of extremely efficient and logical

"co-location" premises where one building houses more than one concern.

So, pubs which house small-scale post office facilities are appearing under the excellent "Pub is the Hub" scheme, many village shops have incorporated not just postal facilities, but beauty salons, cafs, bakeries and gift shops too. It also makes sense to utilise the farm shops which are doing such an incredible job of leading the local food revolution, and more and more farm shops have taken on a small branch. Needs must, and determination not to lose their services completely has led to some extremely lateral thinking.

Poor transport links in rural areas, high bank closure rates and an ageing population means that communities have to work hard to maintain village life, but they are rising to the challenge admirably.

Balance sheets and hiding behind that empty phrase, "economic viability", belies the real worth of our post offices – their role in our community interaction, and the fact that people, not profits, should be driving things forward.

While Royal Mail enjoys its profits and organises a reshuffle in its communications team, perhaps the last word should go to its strategy and commercial director, Alex Smith, who commented recently to Marketing magazine: "The key principle of the redesign is to create a market- and customer-led organisation that better meets customer need through service delivery."

I'm not 100 per cent sure how to decode marketing-speak, but I

think he is agreeing with us – this is about people.

Simon Hart is chief executive of the Countryside Alliance.