Saturday, October 21, 2006

Rural post offices

I know nothing about living in rural areas - I've always lived in towns and when I went to Tolpuddle for the trade union do a couple of years ago I was astonished to find that there wasn't a newsagent or cashpoint in the whole village.

As a result, I am quite sympathetic to the people campaigning against rural post office closures, based on no more than a prejudice in favour of anyone lobbying against a reduction in public services, and the thought that living in a village without a post office must be even more miserable than living in a village with one. However, I read Tim's thoughts on this issue, essentially that getting rid of rural post offices is a good idea, and I wondered whether anyone who was knowledgable about this issue could tell me whether he is roughly right or not. Here's his argument:

"A full network of rural sub post offices (and for that matter suburban ones) are an expensive form of subsidy from all taxpayers and postal service users to those who live in areas with low density housing - that is, people in rich areas with large houses.

Working people are paying for people in suburban and rural areas to have short queues at their underused post offices. East Anglia is hardly a citadel of the revolutionary working classes and of course rich people will squeal when their traditional privileges are taken from them and they stop getting a subsidy from working people. Just look at the fuss being kicked up recently over the revelation that more hospitals in rich areas (Tory & Lib Dem seats) are being considered for closure than hospitals in poorer (Labour) areas.

The ludicrous number of post offices in this country is a result of the era when telegraphs were the main means of rapid communication - the diversity of benefit and banking functions they took on came only later when their network was the obvious way for the government, after the 1906 government and even more so after the Attlee government's creation of the current welfare state system, to go about providing state services in the community.

. 8.5 million out of a total of 10.5 million pensioners now get their State
Pensions paid into a bank account.
. 98 per cent of people making new State Pension claims have chosen to have
it paid directly into their bank, building society or Post Office account.
. An increasing number of people are choosing to renew their tax disc
online. Over 3 million people have renewed their tax disc online so far this
year compared to 860,000 in 2005.

There is a problem for elderly people (and the 2 million and the 2% above are probably disproportionately working class), and that is a problem as the briefing recognizes, but I don't think it should be beyond us to come up with better ways of getting money to old people than rural post offices. Actually it'd be interesting to know where that 2% and where those 2 million
live - I suspect most of them live in big cities. As the government says:

"With its £2 billion investment programme, the Labour Government has demonstrated its commitment to the Post Office. We recognise that there must be continued funding for post offices which play an important social and economic role but can never become commercially viable."

A bit of state intervention in the banking sector to ensure everyone does have a bank account, perhaps a telephone bank account, might be a better idea than worrying too much about closing post offices.

However much I might disagree with EU proposals to liberalize the postal market or Lib Dem nonsense on the subject, I think it's difficult as a socialist to disagree with the basic thrust of what the government is doing to reduce the rural post office network."


At 3:24 pm , Anonymous jdc said...

Tim is making some assumptions about the characteristics of rural communities, and no I don't think, overall, the argument holds.

To say that 98% of claimants have 'chosen' to have their pension paid into a bank account rings roughly as hollow as TfL saying that they expect that when the East London Line is closed many passengers will "choose" to cross the river by bus into town and back out again... the government removed the other choice.

Closing a post office doesn't affect people who don't need the post office, it affects people with limited mobility or transport, people who regularly need to pick up forms such as benefit claims, or to collect benefits (benefits take-up is lower as a proportion of those believed to be eligible, in rural areas). We should also remember that closing the post office often means closing the only shop as well.

Rural poverty is going up, and quite high. 30% of households in the most rural areas are income poor - yet face higher costs of living than many in urban areas - no cheap supermarkets, more transport costs, no housing as holidaymakers have bought it all (in some places). The Post Office network draws over 60 per cent of its customer base from the traditional working class, the C2DE social categories - it's a working class service.

The challenge is to do it all in a more cost-efficient way, so that there is some sort of public sector presence in each settlement which can provide as many of the various services as possible, which might be by putting a post office in a pub, it might be by putting one in a mobile library, or it might be by having a GP visit a post office one day a week. It's also to ensure that we do this sensibly, and close the ones that can be closed, not in a way where the noisy middle class people keep theirs because they understand how to make a fuss.

There we are, Tim's not wrong very often, so it's important to be clear about when he is.

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