Destroying the best of Britain
8 May 2008
When I first came to live in Britain, much of ordinary life was premised on a sense of community. It was mostly undeclared; occasionally, it would become vivid, even heroic. Watching Durham miners, defeated but unbowed by hunger and debt, march back to the pit in 1985, led by their women, was a glimpse of Britain at its best. In spite of Thatcher and Blair, that communal decency survives, though you may have to look for it. A good place to look is a local post office.
Local post offices, from the Highlands to the Pennines to the inner cities, are where precious parcels begin their epic journey to the other side of the world, and pensions, income support, child benefit and Incapacity Benefit are drawn, and Freedom Passes are issued, along with Lottery tickets and Mars Bars. I often walk down to my local post office just to browse, watching the kindness that Shailesh and Smita Patel hand out to the elderly, the awkward, the inarticulate, the harried. If an elderly person has failed to turn up on pension day, he or she will get a visit from Smita, with groceries. Smita has been doing this for most of 20 years.
Their post office, in Abbeville Road, Clapham, is one of 169 London branches due to close in May. That is a fifth of all post offices in the capital. Some 2,500 post offices are expected to be shut in Britain by the end of 2009. This includes rural and remote areas, where the post office is quite literally the heart of a community. The Patels in Abbeville Road have had just six weeks to mount a campaign. They have collected 4,500 signatures and packed a local church hall. My neighbours have little doubt about what will happen to "Abbeville Village" if the post office's shutters come down. A proposed betting shop is Lambeth Council's idea of community - or yet another estate agent.
The whole wilful destruction is a new Labour classic and shows why, in a nutshell, even the ever faithful have turned on them. Having already closed 6,000 post offices since it came to power in 1997, more than any other government, it issues press releases saying it wants to "help the Post Office modernise, restore profitability . . . invest in new products and look at innovative ways to deliver services". We know what this means. It was left to a member of the Scottish Parliament, Fergus Ewing, to say it: "Senior management are preparing the ground for a huge sell-off of the postal service."
Note the way they are doing it. For each branch marked for closure, the six-week "consultation process" is so "shrouded in secrecy", says Peter Luff, chairman of the Commons business, enterprise and regulatory reform committee, "that by the time it gets to a public consultation stage, the decision on a Post Office branch is a fait accompli". When Royal Mail managers faced a public meeting off Abbeville Road, they got their facts wrong about the services provided by the local branch, and they seemed to have no idea of its cost base. Neither could they explain why the alternatives were post offices themselves marked for closure. Their chief executive, Adam Crozier, is the man responsible for cancelling the second mail delivery and introducing inept "flexible" work practices that have demoralised what was once the most loyal workforce in the country. For this, he saw his pay package rise by 26 per cent to £1.25m last year. That is £1,000 for every hour and 27 minutes he is seated at his desk.
The "S-word" is subsidy. While new Labour is happy to subsidise Crozier's fortune, a failed bank, colonial bloodbaths in Iraq and Afghan istan and a culpably useless Trident nuclear weapon system costing up to £20bn, it refuses to subsidise a true public service that costs, in relative terms, peanuts.
On 19 March, just 20 Labour MPs voted against the government on a motion calling for a delay in closure of post offices. My local, Labour MP, Keith Hill, made a speech in which he called Abbeville Road post office a "lifeline of human contact". He also called it "one of that 30 per cent minority of profit-making, commercially viable post offices", which he compared favourably with those post offices providing only a public service. He was not against closing branches, he said, but it "makes no sense" if they made a profit. Charles Darwin would have understood the logic.