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Our post offices are part of the social fabric

by Greg Thomas, policy officer in the CAS Strong Communities team.

This column first appeared in the Herald newspaper on 1 July 2020.

As shops begin to re-open, one positive lesson we might draw from lockdown is that it has deepened our sense of appreciation for local services, and our sense of connection to the people who provide them. The lack of consistent contact with our local shopkeepers, bus drivers and postal workers has made us realise we’re not only bound to such people by practical dependence, there are social and emotional connections too.

Those living in more remote areas of Scotland are less likely than most to have needed this reminder. They know how valuable their local services are because they’ve seen them shrinking for decades, from banks and cashpoints to grocery stores and public transport.

For many people in rural Scotland, the Post Office really is the last shop in the village. And many Post Offices have only been spared the worst effects of rural economic decline because of the support they’re offered by the UK Government through network subsidy payments: grants to support branches that aren’t making money. Such branches, almost all of which are rurally or remotely located, are known as “community status branches” – a name that acknowledges their social importance.

But rural Post Offices aren’t secure in the long term, and nor have they fully escaped the impacts of funding cuts and shifts in consumer behaviour. Since the early 1980s, the number of Post Offices in the UK has halved. And while the figure has levelled out since 2010, there has been a significant shift in the types of service that rural Post Offices can deliver.

Between 2009 and 2019, the number of so-called “Outreach” Post Offices – mobile or pop-up branches that operate in remote areas – has more than doubled across the UK, from 803 to 1,633. Most of these new Outreach branches have replaced “bricks-and-mortar” branches, and they generally offer reduced hours and services. Some are incorporated into local shops and so only operate when the shop is open, or for set hours each week. Others are run from specially equipped vans.

At Citizens Advice Scotland, we understand the financial constraints on Post Office Limited, and that the conversion of physical branches into Outreaches over the last decade has saved large sections of the network from closure. But there are legitimate questions to be asked about the level of service Outreach branches provide for their customers, many of whom find it hard to access alternative branches, particularly if they have mobility problems or are facing social or economic exclusion.

There are also doubts around Outreach provision as a working model for the subpostmasters who manage the branches, some of whom operate multiple Outreach services while simultaneously running a regular Post Office.

That’s why, over the last two years, CAS has published two insight reports on Outreach services, gauging the views of consumers and subpostmasters respectively on how well such branches are operating. These reports have brought to light both the challenges Outreach services face and the immense value that consumers place in them. Both factors must be considered when deciding how to manage Scotland’s rural Post Office network over the coming years.

On the one hand, we’ve found that awareness of Outreach services in the locations where they operate remains very low, and subpostmasters highlighted a number of problems with their working conditions. Many lacked adequate technical support, or were over-stretched delivering services across a range of areas. Some had been provided with inadequate venues or vehicles, and there were persistent concerns that their services were not well advertised.

On the other hand, what comes through most clearly from our research is that those consumers who do use these remote branches value them highly, and that subpostmasters derive a lot of satisfaction from providing a vital community service.

That’s why it’s so concerning that the UK Government’s contract to provide network subsidy payments to Post Office Limited is expiring in 2021, with no renewal yet agreed. If this deal is allowed to lapse, all community status branches, including Outreaches, will be at risk of closure, threatening the social infrastructure of whole swathes of rural Scotland.

When the original deal for network subsidy payments was agreed between the UK Government and Post Office Limited, it was implied that payments would eventually be withdrawn as branches became economically self-sufficient. This is clearly the wrong way to think about rural Post Offices, which are, first and foremost, community assets.

They must be funded to continue operating at their current level as an absolute minimum, and if anything, should receive better financial, technical, and administrative support, with greater attention paid to subpostmasters’ working conditions so that they can deliver the best possible service for the communities they serve.

Post Offices are part of our social fabric and, like so many other local services, we shouldn’t only remember that in times of crisis.