Greg Wright: Post office closures are destroying ancient communities

Rachel Reeves MP Picture: Tony Johnson
Rachel Reeves MP Picture: Tony Johnson
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WHEN a post office closes, an ancient community dies around it.

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Don’t believe me? Just drive out to any remote village. If the settlement is lucky enough to have a post office then there’s a very good chance you will find a host of other businesses keeping it company.

The post office is the life-force for many fragile communities because it attracts a steady stream of visitors from neighbouring hamlets and farms who need to pay their bills and access personal and business banking services.

Take the post office away and suddenly the comforting rhythm of village life is gone. The value of the service was underlined recently, when I called in at a post office in a small Yorkshire village to pay bills on behalf of an elderly relative.

This is a community where everybody knows your name and customers are not simply numbers and commodities. It’s a glimpse of a vanished world before we were enslaved by social media and online transactions. The staff were friendly and helpful, but, privately, I feared that they might be struggling to make a profit.

The closure of any post office causes untold hours of quiet desperation for elderly people, who have already been driven to distraction by the loss of other rural services.

Sadly, the future for Britain’s post offices looks grim. MPs have been warned that the Post Office network is on the brink of collapse with more than 2,500 branches facing closure in the next year.

More than a fifth of sub-postmasters, who run the Post Office franchises across the UK, have said they plan to resign or downsize because of increasing financial pressures. A survey found that 76 per cent of sub-postmasters - who run 98 per cent of the franchised offices in the UK - work for less than the minimum hourly wage.

Any action which makes the post office system less viable could have catastrophic consequences. It’s hardly surprising that Rachel Reeves MP, the chair of the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) Committee has denounced the move by Barclays Bank to stop its customers withdrawing cash from post office branches.

Barclays has pledged not to close branches in remote areas or where it is the last bank in town for the next two years.

The bank is also launching a new cashback scheme enabling people to withdraw money at small businesses - but said that from 2020 its customers will no longer have a facility which allows them to withdraw cash over the counter at Post Offices.

“Barclays need to think again,” said Ms Reeves “This unjustifiable decision from Barclays to stop customers accessing their own money from post offices is a deeply retrograde step which lets down customers, undermines the post office network, and potentially leaves people in many places without access to their own cash.”

There is plenty of evidence to show that access to free cash withdrawals at post offices is vital, especially to those who are elderly and vulnerable.

Ms Reeves added: “This decision comes at a time when, across the banking sector, high-street branches are closing and free cash-points are under threat.

“It’s essential that the future viability of the post office network is secured and unfortunately this decision from Barclays suggests they are forgetting their wider social responsibilities. The Business Committee has been examining the future of the post office, including looking at options for branches to provide more banking services, and we expect to come forward with a report and recommendations later this month.”

In response, Barclays promised that “nobody will be left behind” as it highlighted the fact that customers are still able to use a Post Office for range of services.

But Ms Reeves was unmoved, accusing Barclays of undermining the post office network and letting down customers, by leaving people without access to their own cash. Banks make colossal profits on the backs of loyal customers, who are often struggling to make a living in the heart of the country.

It’s not unreasonable to expect these wealthy bankers to remember their responsibilities to customers who cling tenaciously to their local post office.