Oh Gordon, you should have seen us march

Harriet Sergeant
Published: 9 March 2008

Yesterday I joined 400 of my neighbours in a very English demonstration. It was not a march for revolution but, as one of the organisers put it, “a walk on the pavement” to protest at the closure of our local post office. Ours is not even a proper post office. That closed last year. It consists of two counters at the back of a small shop and newsagent’s in Formosa Street in Maida Vale, west London. But news of its demise has generated strong emotions.

Does that matter? Are we sentimental about a service that fewer and fewer of us use? Are we merely nostalgic for the community spirit that the post office, like the library, is supposed to represent? Which one of us, when given the choice, has not gone elsewhere with relief?

None of that was apparent yesterday. Despite the cold and rain a determined crowd gathered in Formosa Street. We were marching to our next nearest post office, a 40-minute walk uphill and over four main roads. The issue had brought together people of every age and background. Pensioners and single mothers marched alongside fashion designers, film directors, a QC, the local pub owner and a former deputy chairman of the Post Office. Children carried banners they had made. Others wore cardboard boxes decorated with slogans. There was an elegant woman in a wheelchair, parents pushing buggies and small children on tricycles. As we moved off, we broke into song: “God save our Royal Mail, long live Formosa Street, please save our poor old feet.” Somebody even tried a descant.

Our protest might appear idiosyncratic but we are not alone. In 2006, 4m people signed petitions against post office closures. The issue highlights the lack of local democracy and the disjointed nature of our government.

At the bottom of it, as with so much in this country, is an obscure European Union directive. On January 1, 2006, Royal Mail lost its monopoly when the EU opened up the delivery of all items of more than 50g, roughly the weight of the average letter, to competition. In the UK private companies, thanks to a Conservative government, can cherry pick the most profitable operations. In order to “modernise” and “reshape” the rest of the network, Labour has shut 4,500 post offices. It now plans to close a further 2,500 out of the remaining 14,000. This is in order to save £150m a year in government subsidies.

Why this sudden belt-tightening from a government notable for its extravagance? Northern Rock, the Millennium Dome, the Olympics and Metronet, not to mention two wars, are just some examples. Billions are not a problem for this government. Millions, it seems, are. The government is treating the Post Office like a business, but it is not run like a business. The government is the only shareholder and the only investor. For most of us it is the sole provider of key services. Even more strange is the fact that although the Post Office itself is losing money, it is not part of a loss-making business. In 2006 Royal Mail as a whole made £233m profit.

The government is guilty of muddled thinking. A business can subsidise a service. Developers, for example, are often asked to provide a facility in exchange for planning permission – green space, a sports club or subsidised housing. But to the poor, the elderly and the vulnerable, the group this government is supposed to represent, the Post Office is a service and a vital one at that.

Sam Wainwright, a former deputy chairman of the Post Office who lives nearby, explained why he got involved: “I saw people leaving the post office distraught at the news.”

The rapid advance of technology has left sections of society more dependent on the Post Office than ever. My local branch is used by 1,200 people a week. About a quarter, in this supposedly wealthy area of London, do not own a computer, are not online and lack a bank account. A number even find using a PIN number baffling. The majority are elderly and disabled. One 86-year-old lady, too frail for the march, explained, “I can go to one place for everything.” She received her pension and paid her gas and electricity bills in one visit. “I am not modern and I don’t like change,” she added sadly. She also put aside a little every month for Christmas. Are these really the sort of people the government should be making a profit out of?

The government appears to view benefits and pensions as a service but their distribution as a business. It is like providing free schooling but then expecting schools to earn their way. Or to pay for a police service but demand that police cars become a money-making enterprise – picking up fares in between emergency calls.

The majority of us had gone on the march frustrated because there is no other way to get our views heard. We had little belief, failing a government minister as our local MP, in our elected representatives to alter the outcome. Many had taken the trouble to write to the Post Office’s network development manager but a computer-generated e-mail was the only reaction. As one said, “They just go straight into the wastepaper basket.” Or, as a post office worker commented, “The public haven’t got a cat in hell’s chance of saving a branch.”

Nor were we impressed by the knowledge of Anita Turner, the network development manager. She appeared never to have made the journey from Formosa Street to St John’s Wood. The Post Office brochure on the subject was, as one man said, “cobbled together”. Another said: “It is appalling that an official document should contain so much inaccurate information.”

The government sees the Post Office as a business. It ignores that at the heart of business should be consumer choice. We are not being allowed to exercise that choice. Dhimant and Hiten Patel, the brothers who have run the post office in Formosa Street for 20 years, provide a good service. They have, as the march demonstrated, extraordinarily loyal customers. “They are worth their weight in gold,” said one woman.

There is an alternative. Essex council has just announced that it plans to fund 15 recently closed post offices for another three years. It wants to experiment putting post offices in schools and libraries or offer more local authority services in post offices. Meanwhile, we are left with only a tiring bus journey, a long walk or paying £5 to park to get to our nearest post office. All of this is a world away from the experience of those forcing this policy upon us. The Palace of Westminster boasts three post offices. An MP is never more than 17 yards from buying a stamp.

The government should take note. Marching with 400 of your neighbours is a transforming experience. Maybe the closure of our post offices will do more than any government initiative to revive interest in local democracy.

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