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Saturday, Feb. 4, 2006
Royal Mail woes

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Wednesday, Oct. 15, 2003
From the Field
York Alan


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London — It was another sad sign of the times. As I walked towards the Tube a couple of days ago, I noticed the poster on the window of my local post office.

"Dear Customer," read the open letter from Post Office Ltd. "I am writing to let you know that we are proposing to close this branch on a permanent basis."

The Sutton Lane post office, a storefront run by an Anglo-Indian couple with the occasional help of one of their adult daughters, is one of 3,000 urban local post offices that are due to close across Britain by the end of next year. That's one-third of all the urban post offices in the country.

Closing post offices is sensitive politically in Britain as it is in Canada, particularly in rural areas, where they are often the centre of village life. But Royal Mail Group, the Crown corporation that runs the post office, has been drowning in red ink for years and says it can no longer afford its extensive network of post offices when people are migrating to the internet and the mail-delivery business is being opened to competition.

Fearing an ugly backlash, the government has backed off closing rural post offices for now but is allowing Royal Mail to push ahead with "rationalizing" its urban branch network. Yet people in cities and towns aren't too thrilled about seeing their local post offices close either. The closures have sparked letter-writing campaigns, petitions and protests by local municipal councils.

The fact is that the Royal Mail has traditionally been a much more important institution to Britons than Canada Post has been to Canadians. For one thing, it has, until recently, had an excellent reputation for reliability. "It's a really loved institution," said Daryl Barrett, a spokeswoman for Postwatch, the consumer watchdog for postal services set up by the government. "It's part of our heritage." That heritage is evident on the cast-iron red post box outside the Sutton Lane post office, its side embossed with a large GR, indicating it's been there since the reign of King George VI.

For a Canadian, one of the pleasures of moving to Britain is the efficiency of the postal service.

I'll never forget speaking to someone in Scotland late one afternoon who told me they'd pop a document in the post and be startled to find it turning up in the mail before 9 am the next morning. And I'm still impressed to receive The Economist every Friday morning in my office, freshly printed the night before and delivered by the postman like clockwork.

And the biggest treat of all is to find letters sliding through my mail slot on Saturday mornings because six-day-a-week delivery remains a reality here.

But Britons are complaining that service isn't what it once was. Customers grumble that many post boxes are only cleared once a day, that mail is frequently lost and that the post office is now charging 50 pence a minute when you call for a postal code. Postal workers in London have been staging walkouts to back demands for higher cost of living payments. Just two weeks ago, the Royal Mail was fined 7.5-million by its regulator for failing to meet targets for first-class postal service.

Added to these problems has been stupidity at the top. A few years ago, somebody had the imagination to modernize the Royal Mail's image by changing its name to Consignia. After howls of derision, the name was changed back to the original at a huge cost to the company.

At the same time, there has been erosion of the post office's vital role in British life. Traditionally, it was the way the government delivered pensions, welfare and child benefits to millions of Britons, the place you paid your gas and electric bill and your annual car tax.

Many Britons have never had a bank account. Instead, they would queue up every week at their local post office with a book of coupons and receive their pension or unemployment benefit in cash.

But that's changing as the British government belatedly joins the electronic payment revolution. Over the next two years, the government will force some 14 million recipients who are not on direct-deposit schemes to switch.

For sub-postmasters like Dilip Baksaria at my local post office who get paid every time a cheque is cashed or a bill paid, the loss of the benefit business is the final straw. He can't keep the place going selling soft drinks and a few chocolate bars. "All the small postmasters are struggling," he told me. "The people are not coming in as before. Ninety per cent of our business is the post office."

People objecting to the closure have been invited to write to the Post Office with their views. Drew McBride, the official in charge of the consultation, promises to take local views into consideration but says that usually the arguments don't wash. In some cases, there have been more signatures on petitions protesting the closure of a local post office than regular clients at the outlet.

"People want their post office there but they don't back it up by actually using it," he said.

As for Mr. Baksaria, he says he'll gladly take the compensation package offered by the post office and roll down the shop's metal shutter for the last time by the start of 2004. "I've got heart trouble. I'm going to retire."

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