When the Cambridge News came through our letterbox today, the fact that our post office has been saved from closure actually made me feel a bit guilty that, of the 23 branches threatened with closure in and around the county, only one was reprieved. 22 are due to have their doors closed forever.
This was never an even battle. Based on the profitability of individual post offices in an environment where services were being peeled off like layers from an onion and reconstructed in cyberspace, it was a David-versus-Goliath battle with the country as the doomed giant and central government manically throwing stones.
I'd like to take just four post-offices marked for closure as examples.
Although it had never featured in the original criteria, it had been intimated that post-offices would not be closed if they were the only shop nearby. In fact, all four closures in Fenland, the most remote area of the county, leave residents with no retail amenities of any sort nearby - and I link to Cambridgeshire ACRE's (Action with Communities in Rural England) analyses:
Christchurch, proposed to be replaced with a mobile service for 1 hour on weekdays, nearest permanent branch 5 miles away in Upwell;
Benwick, proposed to be replaced with a mobile service 3 hours per week, to be confirmed, nearest permanent branch 4 miles away in Doddington;
Wisbech Harecroft Road; no replacement - other branches available in this rather large town one-fifth of whose population is retired; and
March - as above, but a quarter of population retired.
The Government's targets in the May 2007 report The Future of the Rural Post office Network are for 95% of the total rural population to be within 3 miles of a post-office, and 95% of the population in postcode districts in remote areas to be within 6 miles of a post office. I've found it difficult to find the official designation of Fenland, but it looks as if we may be up against averages here. Also, it appears that mobile services may count as post-offices, even though, as in the proposed case for Christchurch, they may only be in the village for an hour every weekday.
There's also the issue of post-offices being hosted by pubs: a good idea, but what if somebody for whatever reason has a medical or moral objection to entering one? Again, the above document has suggested churches taking up the slack - but what if a church-run post-office should find that it has, for example, been unwittingly passing on pornography, or material militating against religion?
I don't think it's realistic for a business to be expected to run at a loss. But the post-office isn't entirely a business, it's a government department. If, say, hospitals, police stations or barracks were expected to show profits or fold, Great Britain would be an even more dangerous place to live in.
And yet a postal service can serve its community and make a profit. The United States Postal Service makes a massive profit precisely by providing the services that people need to be part of a connected society. The Post Office could never hope to make as much as we are a small island, but a profit could be made. Whereas the USPS provides 157 services, the PO provides 93 and falling. It doesn't help that providers of some amenities are putting surcharges on any method of payment other than direct debit.
And there's the rub. The Post Office seems determined to collude in the downfall of its rural branches, even though for many villagers it is their main source of socialisation and local knowledge. A small side-article in the Telegraph of 18 September stated: "[A] study by the Post Office found that families could save...if they...paid their bills...online".
This county seems to be perceived as relatively rich by the Government, but possession of a car and/or a mortgage do not confer membership of the Institute of Directors. I suggest that the powers that be at the moment pull out their dictionaries and look up the meanings of "rural" and "remote". Then they might look up "election".
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