Age Concern Defends Rural Post Offices

The government is under renewed pressure today to reach a decision on the future of the 8,000-strong network of rural post offices after a report warned that older people fear financial and social isolation if Royal Mail is forced into a widespread closure programme.

Age Concern is calling on the government to renew the network’s £150m-a year subsidy, which expires at the end of March 2008, as part of an integrated approach to delivering local services.

“The government must stop dragging its heels on the future of rural post offices,” said Age Concern’s director general, Gordon Lishman. “If it fails to renew the subsidy, thousands of post offices could be forced to close down and thousands more vulnerable older people could be cut off from their local community. The government must consider social as well as commercial factors when making its decision.”

A poll conducted for the charity showed that 99% of older people in rural areas consider their local post office to be a “lifeline” and more than half fear closures would leave them more isolated. The report says many pensioners use their local post office to collect their pensions and benefits, pay bills, get advice and information and to socialise.

The government has set up a special cabinet sub-committee, chaired by the deputy prime minister, John Prescott, to look at the future of the post office network, including rural offices. It faces difficult choices between the commercial pressures to close loss-making offices, perhaps replacing them with part-time offices in pubs or village halls, and the risk of social isolation highlighted by the Age Concern report.

Though the existing support programme still has 18 months to run, industry insiders argue that any delay in the government’s decision would leave sub postmasters and mistresses facing uncertainty and reduce the time for thousands of small businesses to deal with what could be a catastrophic change in their circumstances.

There is also some concern that though Brussels has twice approved the UK’s support for the rural network it may not be prepared to continue to approve state aid if it appears to have become permanent.

A Department of Trade and Industry spokesman said the government recognised the wider role played by post offices, which it had shown by its investment in the network. “We are looking to support the Post Office in seeking to create a viable post office network that matches the needs of customers and local communities. Discussions are taking place across government.” A Royal Mail spokesman said: “The government must decide what size and shape of the post office network it wants and to be clear about how that network will be funded.”

The government has come under fire for what critics regard as a less than coordinated approach to the Post Office. It has provided support to the rural offices but it has been warned that the decision by the Department of Work and Pensions to end the Post Office Card Account – through which millions receive pension and benefit payments – will mean the closure of vulnerable post offices.

“The message from older people couldn’t be clearer. Rural post offices play a vital role in the community which stretches far beyond providing a postal service,” Mr Lishman said. “The subsidy must be renewed to ensure that all essential local services, including post office services, can be accessed by older people living in rural areas.”

Village voices

Why the post office matters …

“It gives a reason to go out. If you don’t have a reason to go out you become isolated in your own home and become lonely and depressed.”

“The post office acts as a networking centre, allowing villagers to meet, pass on news and information.”

“The post office provides me daily with bread, milk and other basics.”

“My husband is not able to use public transport and either depends on me to ferry him around or walks to the post office. The people there are his only contact with anyone until I come home from work and it pulls him out of depression.”