By a Newsnet reporter
Westminster opposition parties and countryside organisations have reacted with anger to the news that 2,000 rural post offices across the UK will close from next summer and be replaced with a more limited service.
Starting in June 2012, the Post Office plans to convert one fifth of its network of 11,500 post offices into newly branded “PO Locals” which will not offer the full range of services available at a traditional post office. PO Locals are typically counters located in existing retail premises such as convenience stores, petrol stations or pharmacies.
Many of the services previously available at post offices will no longer be on offer at the new PO Locals. Post office customers will not be able to pay car tax or apply for a driving licence, they will not be able to make cash withdrawals from PO savings accounts using their account passbook, and will not be able to mail bulky items overseas.
In 2007 the Post Office began a trial project to convert smaller rural post offices into the new PO Locals. There are currently some 115, mostly in the English county of Devon.
Post Office Ltd has now announced that it will roll the new service out across the entire UK from next summer. However according to the post office watchdog Consumer Focus, the PO Local trial in Devon has highlighted a number of issues which have yet to be addressed.
Consumer Focus found that the new PO Local service was often treated as a “secondary offer” by the owners of the premises which host them. The Daily Telegraph reported that some of the new PO Locals even ran out of money and were unable to pay pensions or benefits. The new services cannot hold as much cash on the premises as a traditional post office.
Andy Burrows, postal services expert at Consumer Focus, said: “The Post Office network is due to undergo a radical transformation in the next few years. Although this programme won’t involve any closures, consumers will inevitably be at the sharp end of any changes to their local post office service.
“Now is the time to look ahead and agree what can be done to ensure this programme of change is implemented as smoothly as possible for consumers. The starting point must be a planned approach which gives local people and authorities the chance to anticipate and tackle problems that may arise.”
Critics fear that the changes will have a severe impact on post office services in rural areas. The SNP MSP Paul Wheelhouse and MP Mike Weir have condemned the changes as “devastating”.
Others claim that the downgraded services will mean that it will no longer be financially viable for rural sub-post offices to remain in business.
Alice Barnard of the Countryside Alliance said: “This is essentially a downgrading of the postal services offered to local communities. The PO Local model will create a lower quality public service and will simply not be financially viable for most sub-postmasters. Isolated rural communities stand to suffer the most from the closures and loss of postal services.
“We are concerned that there has been insufficient public scrutiny of the new model and the effect it will have on people’s everyday lives.
Paul Wheelhouse, SNP MSP for South Scotland, is writing to Post Office Ltd and the UK Government seeking clarity on the new service.
Mr Wheelhouse said: “This is extremely worrying news. Rural communities need post offices and closing them would affect the most vulnerable people in our communities.
“The previous UK Government seemed determined to run down post offices and this one is just the same.
“Post Offices deliver essential services and everything must be done to help them remain viable businesses across Scotland.
“I will be writing to Post Office Ltd and the UK Government to ask for further details on this “revamp” and to see exactly how this would impact Scotland’s communities.”
SNP Postal Affairs spokesperson Mike Weir MP is tabling a question in Westminster on the closures.
He said: “Post offices are a lifeline for many in Scotland’s communities so it would be a devastating blow if these were to close.
“Although Post Office Ltd says it will maintain the same presence, will all the same services be available? Many of the services being withdrawn are some of the ones that people rely on their post offices for.
“The SNP is committed to helping our post offices, which is why we have our £1m post office diversification fund to help boost their businesses.
“During this tough economic time the UK Government should follow in our lead in helping our sub post masters keep their businesses going.”