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Last Updated: Tuesday, 5 October, 2004, 19:33 GMT 20:33 UK
'Post offices are our lifeline'
by Marie Jackson
BBC News Online

The Post Office is in the process of closing 3,000 post offices. But the National Pensioners Convention says the elderly rely on them "as a lifeline to the wider community" and on Tuesday around 100 pensioners protested about the closures. BBC News Online looks at the issues.
Post office branch closure notice
More than 1,400 post offices in England and Wales have been shut down

The door to the St Peter Street post office in north London does not open until 9am but many pensioners are congregating at 8am as they like to have a chat first.

On 1 November this branch will close like 1,421 others across England and Wales, and the customers will be sent to a branch further away to be met by unfamiliar faces.

According to a growing band of protesters, these closures spell the end of a lifeline for the elderly, chip away at community spirit and may kill off local trade.

But the Post Office says there are simply too many branches competing for too little business, and its programme of closures will mean existing branches are strengthened.

Irreplaceable service?

Is this a case of a rational economic argument being clouded by the nostalgia and conservatism of an ageing population or do our post offices offered a service which will never be truly replaced?

Post offices do a real job in the community and we are going to lose an amenity we have always had
Kenneth Arts
Barrow Pensioners' Forum
Kenneth Arts made the 300-mile journey from Cumbria to London on Tuesday to represent the Barrow-in-Furness Pensioners' Forum at the demo outside the Post Office's national headquarters.

He told BBC News Online: "They closed two post offices near me and turned one into a food shop.

"Now all the pensioners on the local estate have to travel for a mile in one direction or go up a steep hill in the other to get their pension.

Kenneth Arts, Chairman of Barrow-in-Furness Penioners' Forum
Kenneth Arts' nearest post office has been replaced by a fast food shop

"The problem is the pensioners tend to have a bit of a social gathering and the poor sods who run the places can't make a living from a social gathering," he said.

"There are a few coffee mornings and a few churches but without the post office, they will get no social interaction and have no place to go," he added.

Ellen Coulton, secretary of Greenwich Pensioners' Forum, says three branches in her neighbourhood are set to close.

She said: "We used to have pop-ins [coffee mornings] but gradually those have closed.

'Losing an amenity'

"They tell us to go to leisure centres but you have got to get yourself there and pay for it somehow. Post offices do a real job in the community and we are going to lose an amenity we have always had."

It is an amenity which is valued as much in rural as in urban communities.

Independent research found three-quarters of those surveyed in rural areas considered their post office "extremely important", 91% said it "played an important role in their community, while 59% thought it was "essential to their way of life", according to postal services watchdog Postwatch.

Dot Gibson of the National Pensioners Convention
Dot Gibson claims post offices are an essential lifeline for the elderly

Dot Gibson, secretary of the National Pensioners' Convention and protest co-ordinator, said: "Local shops and the post office is a lifeline. Postmasters keep tabs on them and if they do not turn up on their usual day they will make sure they're OK."

When BBC News Online spoke to one postmaster, who asked not to be named, he said his job was not confined to serving at the counter.

"Last week I had to go to a customer's house because he had been in six or seven times trying to fill in a form so I went to his house to show him how to fill out the form and where to sign. And that's not the only time that's happened," he said.

Redundancy package

The branch, where he has worked all his life, will be shut before the end of the year.

He said customers had come into the branch crying at the news of its closure but he admitted he was offered a redundancy package he could not refuse.

Four years ago, he said, the Post Office "went corporate".

He said: "They wanted me to dress in a shirt and tie. By looking like an insurance salesman, they think you will sell more car insurance and personal loans.

If you are in a village the most important things are the pub and the post office
Steve Bailey, of Bath Postal Museum

"The post office has changed quite alot. It used to be busier here. I have always wondered why we have survived for so long."

Steve Bailey, administrator at Bath Postal Museum, said post offices had always been at the heart of community life and encouraged trade.

In the 19th century, early post offices known as receiving houses were based in inns and bakers, now many sub-post offices are part of newsagents, he said.

"If you are in a village the most important things are the pub and the post office. Take the post office away and people will have to travel into the town centre which will take trade away," he said.




BBC NEWS: VIDEO AND AUDIO
What Post Office closures mean to pensioners



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