For the past 20 years a letter from the Post Office addressed to you in your councillor role probably meant one thing. They were closing another branch!
That’s why it has been a real pleasure for me to spend some with the Post Office over the past few weeks not looking at a closure programme but at positive modernisation plans that will ensure this valued national asset is fit for the 21st century. Above all as a local councillor it has been great to understand that the Post Office now sees councils not just as a necessary consultee but as a key partner to be engaged and worked with as it designs its local service delivery programme.
Working from approximately 350 ‘Crown’ branches and 11,500 sub post offices they provide the largest retail network in theUKwith more branches than all theHigh Stbanks and building societies combined. Crucially in the context of the civil disturbances at the start of the month, they exist, in many cases, as the sole financial services provider in most of the areas where social concerns are uppermost. They have 1,500 branches offering services in deprived urban neighbourhoods. Just as important is the fact that in many rural areas they are the sole business of any sort left standing.
What amazed me was the range of services that the Post Office actually provides. If pushed I might just have said that they could possibly provide 50 services to the community. In practice they provide 174 from the vast majority of their branches. Every week 20 million people go into a Post Office for this tremendous range of services.
April 1st 2012 marks the date on which the Post Office starts its modernisation programme in full. In total more than £1.34 billion will spent to 2015:
- Continuing to provide a subsidy to those Post Offices which are socially needed but not profitable
- Helping those sub post masters who don’t see a future for themselves in the new, modernised network to leave the business.
- Up grading around 6,000 premises to provide a strong viable presence in communities across the UK improving customer experience through the introduction of modern technologies.
The end result after three years will not be more, or critically less, post offices, but better located, better planned post offices offering longer opening hours and a wider range of local and national services.
This agenda fits in so well to the Government’s desire for localism and indeed the ideas of the previous government about neighbourhood renewal. What other organisation is present in 11,500 localities? This beats any other commercial operation hands down.
So what could this new modern Post Office do? The Post Office sees itself as being at the heart of every community as a communications hub for the exchange of information, services, money and products.
Look at it that way, there are a range of services it could provide to central and local government in terms of:
Financial Inclusion. People need to be released from the threat of the tally man, the loan shark and the Provvy. If they are to do this they need to have ‘proper’ financial relationships with a ‘proper’ financial institution. The Post Office offers a wide range of financial services which are available for everybody and they are now looking at how some products could be introduced for the better use of lower paid and unemployed people. This obviously fits in to central government thinking about the Universal Credit.
Better postal services. My local sorting office closes at 10.00 a.m. on a Saturday morning. It’s the biggest traffic jam in the area as people who have been collecting “out” cards for the whole month or week turn up to try and get their precious package out before it closes. Why couldn’t you buy a stamp or post or pick up a parcel in the evening at the local Post Office?
Better Information services. With Post Offices at the centre of so many local communities why can’t they be the place in which the public and private sector ensures that information is available about the range of services that people need to know? And when they have the application why can’t they make the application for those services there and then by drawing down application forms from a computer down load point, or even fill them in if they can be filled in on line and the person doesn’t have a computer. If they can do that why can’t they be a focus for providing support to the 9 million people who have never used the internet?
Integration with other service providers. At the moment there is a fairly generic provision of sub-post masters. Most are small businesses with a growing number being national chains like W H Smith. Why couldn’t we have aPOin one of our one stop shops? Why couldn’t a local social enterprise or mutual provide the Post Office as part of an extended range of local services?
If you think about it, the Post Office was the first World Wide Web. In 1840 the penny black brought mass communication to everyone. An idea thought up in the UKbecame the universal way of transferring information around the world. The Post Office was the centre of the community because even then our community thrived on information. Today’s challenge to the Post Office is to build on its traditional values, its locations and its locally knowledgeable staff to meet the new challenges faced by state and citizen alike. If you want to talk to the Post Office contact Andrea Da Gama at firstname.lastname@example.org. Tel 0207 250 2460.