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13 November 2008

Snapshot: The last post

Is Alan Cook, managing director of the Post Office hoping, perhaps, for a place in posterity next to

By Lynsey Hanley

Post office queues are one of the few social levellers left. The small-time eBay-er must wait his turn with the grandmother collecting her income support and the asylum-seeker posting back the “leave to remain” forms that will change the course of her life. Now that bus queues are more like bus scrums, to spend a quarter of an hour in a relatively orderly public setting can be deeply reassuring. And the scope for eavesdropping is unbeatable.

In size, character and opening hours, Mary Finlayson’s post office in the village of Poyntzfield, Invernesshire, serves its small community perfectly. The “purge”, as she calls it, of rural and small post offices has so far spared the cabin from which she has worked for 15 years. Her customers come for gossip, she says, “and the convenience of being able to get done what they need”. Without post offices like her’s, “ten years from now they’ll be pouring money into the community to keep it going”. It would be throwing good money after bad. Meeting places to which people head like clockwork, out of practical necessity and social need, can’t be manufactured; the “commercial viability” of these post offices is far outweighed by the goodwill their existence preserves.

Two million customers and 250 MPs have signed petitions against post office closures, yet if the contract to administer the four million Post Office Card Accounts (POCAs) through which pensioners and other claimants receive benefit payments is lost to private business, another 3,000 may close, on top of the 2,500 closures already planned. This would take the total number from 13,500 to around 8,000.

Hoping perhaps for a place in posterity next to Dr Beeching, Alan Cook, managing director of the Post Office, has suggested that the post office network could “change” to a point where only 4,000 profitable branches remain. Such drastic cuts are unlikely to happen, especially in light of Lord Mandelson’s proposal to capitalise on the Post Office’s status as a “trusted brand”. But the fact that Cook had such a large figure in mind suggests that post offices are already viewed by those concerned with financial, rather than social, profit as anachronistic.

Dismantling parts of the civic infrastructure in this way is equivalent to cashing in your dental insurance and spending it on sweets. You’ll still be able to buy stamps at W H Smith and collect your benefits at Londis, but the names and faces you associate with those daily transactions will first merge and blend, then disappear. Then the money saved will be spent on getting people to meet one another, as if for the first time.

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