New fears emerged yesterday over the future of some West Country post offices – despite them being awarded a vital new contract.
Union bosses warned that some smaller branches may close as a result of a move to convert them into so-called ‘locals’ – offering reduced services but longer opening hours.
However, there was a welcome for the news that the crucial contract allowing drivers to tax their cars at post offices will carry on for at least another seven years. And the Royal Mail reported a massive leap in profits, triggering new debate over controversial plans to privatise it.
The Western Daily Press has told how much-loved post offices have struggled for years, especially in the countryside where they are often essential to villages that have lost other services. Around 2,500 were axed under Labour in a costcutting programme, including some 200 across the West, although the coalition has pledged not to shut any more.
Its plans include a major £1.34 billion restructuring programme, with some 2,000 branches becoming new local post offices.
MPs warned in a report earlier this year that the reduced services meant a risk they might become unsustainable. The Government said in response yesterday that the locals were popular with customers, especially for their longer opening hours. It said converted branches in a pilot scheme reported average increases of nine per cent in both post office and retail sales.
“As a result of the comprehensive pilot phase, and the positive customer reaction, the Government has confidence that the local model will be a success in suitable branches.”
But Communication Workers Union boss Billy Hayes said Ministers were ignoring the fears of postmasters and their customers.
He said the Government had “unjustifiably ignored” the MPs’ recommendations and was “in denial” about the serious flaws in its plans.
He added: “The Government will not be able to sustain their statement of ‘no programme of closures’ in the long term, due to the lack of take-up of the new operating models.”
West sub-postmasters had warned of the importance of the Post Office retaining the DVLA contract when it went out to tender – rather than go to a competitor. And yesterday the Government said it would go to the Post Office in a deal that could be worth some £450 million, and runs until 2020, with an option for a further three years.
Meanwhile, Royal Mail yesterday said operating profits in the six months to September were £144 million, compared with just £12 million in the same period last year.
Growth in parcel deliveries made up for a continued fall in the number of letters being sent.
Brian Scott of the Unite union said: “The latest growth figures are evidence that the organisation is a viable financial proposition and can continue to be so without being sold off.”
But Business Minister Michael Fallon insisted the Government was still committed to “inject private capital into the company in order to secure the future of the universal postal service”.