Sarah Lee: Service that goes where private mail firms won’t

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ONE of the most time honoured Christmas card designs is that of a jolly little robin perched on a red Royal Mail post box chock full of festive good wishes. Take a look, I bet you’ll get one this year.

Even in these days of charity donations and e-greetings in lieu of a paper Christmas card most of us still can expect a little resistance from the pile of cards, catalogues and circulars each day during December as we push back our front door after a day in the office.

But what if we knew the post would only come every other day or, if we lived somewhere more remote, we were told that shipping a parcel to us would cost an additional cost? Although still not officially on the table these may not be such remote possibilities if threats to the Royal Mail’s business continue unchecked.

In the UK we are very fortunate to have what’s known as the Universal Service Obligation (USO). This is an agreement enshrined in legislation that guarantees a six-day-a-week postal service to all parts of the UK for the same price.

The Postal Services Act 2011 guaranteed that Royal Mail would continue to provide the universal service until at least 2021 – but the introduction of competition into the market is putting Royal Mail’s ability to do this, and stay solvent, in jeopardy.

The problem is that the new businesses delivering to our homes – Whistl and the like – are not bound by the USO and can pick and choose which routes they want to service.

They understandably pick the easiest and most lucrative ones to deliver themselves, leaving the remote, the hard to access and the spread out to Royal Mail.

In fact, except in the most urban of areas, the final part of the journey of any parcel or letter – the “last mile” as it’s known – will still be done by Royal Mail, no matter which company it is sent through.

Whistl and the others pay the Royal Mail for this service, but only a fraction of the cost the public would do.

Whistl plans to directly deliver to 42 per cent of the population by 2017. Sounds a lot, doesn’t it? But in reality this would only require it to cover 8.5 per cent of the UK’s area since it will only deliver in densely populated urban areas.

The rest of the post sent through Whistl will actually be delivered, at a cut price, by Royal Mail.

In many parts of the country – particularly rural areas – the Royal Mail can only defray the cost of delivering mail by using revenues generated from urban and suburban areas. And if these easy routes have already been bagged by the private firms, it makes business very difficult.

The Countryside Alliance has supported Royal Mail’s call on the Government to review competition in the market, and now Ofcom has announced it will look into the issue.

However, Royal Mail said it was “disappointed that Ofcom does not share its view on the threat that unfettered direct delivery poses to the future sustainability of the Universal Service”.

In recent polling for the Countryside Alliance, 78 per cent of rural people and 69 per cent of urban people felt the six-day postal delivery service should be maintained and nearly half (49 per cent) did not feel the Government was doing enough to safeguard it.

A postman I spoke to recently told me that the USO is becoming a “real bone of contention” 
and that his managers were already talking about moving to a “two-day delivery span” – every other day deliveries, in rural areas. “There’s no way we can carry on as we are,” he added.

People pay for a service and should receive the same service wherever they live, was the response from Helen Tessyman, who runs Spellow’s village shop and Post Office at Marton cum Grafton near York.

She said she’d heard that some areas might lose their Saturday delivery and she was concerned for the three businesses in her village which send franked post through her shop.

If they send out first class post it needs to get there the next day, not two days later, 
she said.

There are of course those who feel that having no competition allowed the Royal Mail to become complacent and not move with the times.

One former Post Office worker in Yorkshire told me that moving last postal collections forward to 4pm meant that when other companies appeared on the scene local firms found them much more obliging.

They were “their own worst enemy”, he said.

Rural postal services are never going to be an attractive proposition for the private mail companies, so ensuring the Royal Mail can continue to deliver to the less profitable and more out of the way addresses is vital to rural businesses and communities.

If we want to still receive cards featuring those little red festive robins through our letter box, rather than just the much maligned “round robin” email in our inbox, we and the Government need to ensure the USO can continue to serve rural areas and is not lost owing to unfair competition.

• Sarah Lee is head of policy at the Countryside Alliance.