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Last Updated: Monday, 23 April 2007, 11:19 GMT 12:19 UK
What price a post office?
Postores, Ide Hill

With the shutters set to fall on thousands of rural post offices, Claire Heald, of the BBC News Magazine, spends a day at her local branch to see what, if anything, makes these outposts of Britain's postal network tick.

At the counter at the back of Ide Hill Postores, it is peel, press, peel, press... as stamps are added to a growing pile of Christmas cards.

For 72p they're flying off to Australia and Canada. Or staying more local for 23p, second class.

Sticking stamps
It's a busy time of year...

But while the cost of sending a letter is evident, is it possible to put a price on the value of this rural post office?

With the 150m-a-year subsidy for rural post offices due to be cut in 2008, on Thursday Trade and Industry Secretary Alistair Darling announced 2,500 offices will close.

Just 25 miles from central London, Ide Hill Postores, near Sevenoaks, Kent, feels like it is a world away from the gaze of government actuaries. Standing across from the village green, between the one remaining pub and the small primary school, it serves an immediate community of fewer than 1,000 people and surrounding Kent hamlets.

There is none of the traffic congestion that blights larger settlements nearby. Just walk up, or park outside. Men and women chat by the frontage. Horses are led up the road. It's an idyllic country scene.

Customers flow in

The front door is swollen and sticking thanks to weeks of rain but it's not holding back the steady flow of customers that passes through in this busy Advent period. As it is a weekday, they are mostly parents, people in middle and older age.

Inside, it is no cold, empty, magnolia space with a huge queue, automated "next please" and unknown staff. Sub-postmaster of 24 years Ken McPherson occupies the glass booth. His wife Ann is in charge of the cosy shop's counter.

Ken McPherson and customer
But there's time for a chat while business is done

Ministers may argue that much Post Office business now takes place electronically but the clientele here are not just internet-inhibited older folk. You can work on the internet for a living and still come here to post Christmas cards and pick up supplies.

Four million people nationwide signed the campaign petition against planned post office closures; 700 of them here. So how would the McPhersons feel if their business was earmarked for closure?

Perhaps it is the years of dealing with some of their more "colourful" customers, or the knowledge that their hands are tied by the government and Royal Mail, just at a time when they look towards retirement. But they are pragmatic.

Yes, there would be great upset. "It's our life, it's our living. There would be tears all round," says Ann. But they recognise that the changing demographic of people who live in the area, multiplying supermarkets, and the way they feel some services have been mismanaged - insurance on offer that few people take up, TV licensing moved elsewhere - has an impact.

Customer "devastation"

Their customers are far less sanguine, saying the prospect of closure would be devastating. Ask them about the plans and they offer crossed fingers against it or quick prayers - "God forbid" - as they explain why it is "essential" that it stays.

If it was to close, we'd get together. In a village people club together when something important comes up
Post office customer

Often the social fabric arguments for rural post offices are trumpeted. But here they know practical reasons hold sway. The post office offers them access to services and cash within walking distance, in an area where there are few other amenities but outstanding walks.

Quite simply, they feel it works. Why drive elsewhere to do the post office run when the government wants fewer journeys, less congestion, lowered pollution?

"In Sevenoaks the post office is a nightmare," says local Rusty Dawson. "You have to queue for hours. No-one knows me from Adam. Here you can do everything easily."

And, as many a village shop sinks when it loses its post office, so they fear for their convenient store. For the "beers for the builders" being bought, the morning newspapers, food basics, own-label jam, fruit and veg, tights and fashion socks, hardware, cards, cakes.

Social fabric

But there is also social fabric being meshed here. Gossip is at Heat Magazine levels. Noticeboards in the windows are checked out. At the front, a spot of Christmas party planning is under way - what time to arrive? Which dish to bring?

Jam jars
Provisions are picked up and social lives sorted out

For some customers this trip to the post office is an even more vital piece of daily social interaction, or a keep-me-independent run out of exercise.

What action would they take if its name was on the closure list? "What would we do Ann?" asks one worriedly. "We'd get together," she concludes, firmly. "You find in a village that people club together when something important comes up."

Figures can be put on the business's sales, the 150m annual government subsidy to all such rural offices and the billions in tax revenue collected by the Treasury.

But, unlike the stamps on their cards, the practical benefits, the time saved, the social and physical boost, are not factors the community can price up.


Here is a selection of your comments.

It is a great shame that this is happening. The post service should be convenient, and it is getting worse all the time. If my local post office was shut I'd have to drive a few miles to the one in town, which is ridiculously busy and bad service is rife there. I understand that the government need to tighten up on spending but the rural post offices should surely stay.
Phil Harrington, Newport, South Wales

Post offices are of a bygone era, and the taxpayer should not subsidise any kind of failing or ailing services. The people in the rural communities should take up line dancing
Shahhed Boksh, London

If my local post office were to close, then I would have to drive to post my letters/parcels. So much for the government going greener.
Rick, Yorkshire

I think they should stay open because it's one of the only means of getting my hard-earned money for free, unless I travel five miles to the nearest free cash-point.
Craig Gillam, Stalbridge, Dorset

Does anyone do 'joined up maths' on these ideas? The cost of subsidising rural post offices is put at 150m. But what about the additional costs if these are closed? If you want to use a post office you will have to travel to other towns, adding to congestion and pollution etc, and stand in even longer queues. That's before you even consider the impact on the community. I dread the thought of standing in a queue at our local town post office - on Saturday mornings the queue is frequently out of the door.
Helen Taylor, Wokingham, Berkshire

My life is ruled by computers at work and at home, yet when I sell books to people through Ebay or Amazon, it's still my local post office that helps me send them off quickly and efficiently. Without it I know I'd be lost.
Alison, Milton Keynes

The Post Office was never going to survive the loss of the benefits system. The card account was some form of compensation, although that is now being taken away. It is the government's fault post offices are closing. I'm all for capitalism, but we must also preserve some public services. Ministers are completely out of touch with reality as usual.
Joe, Glasgow

If people in an area want their post office to survive, they need to start raising funds to replace the government subsidy if it is removed - and so keep the place open. If they don't care that much - tough
Megan, Cheshire UK

Why is it that other countries such as France, Spain, Germany, can continue to have their post offices existing in small villages and the UK not?
Gayle Upton, Swindon

All these people that are moaning on about these closures are standing in the way of Blair's Progress. They're the same as those who complained that Beeching's cuts would choke the roads with traffic and the privatisation of buses would cut off rural communities. Oh, wait a minute...
Chris, Staffordshire

In Japan the post office services were privatised last year, and none have closed down. There are eight post offices within five minutes drive of my house.
Adrian, Sakai, Japan

My father used to run a rural post office and it wasn't just stamps he sold. He used to look after the old people when they were ill by taking them groceries and walking their dogs etc. I wonder if the loss of rural post offices will be accompanied by an increase in social services?
Ian, Nashville/USA

Our village post office is a centre of excellence. The postmistress, Sue Foster has time for everyone old and young alike. More importantly, she knows how to help people, solve their problems as well a giving such an excellent service. We have a community that is only three miles from Chorley, but includes an older persons estate, outlying farms, as well as a good spread of commuters. The question I ask, given the Government published community targets, how can closure of rural post offices lead to greater community cohesion?
Terry Dickenson, Wheelton

This has to be seen in the context of rural businesses generally. For a long time, pubs, shops, garages and post offices in villages have been dropping like flies. The government doesn't seem to care and in fact seems to have a semi-secret agenda to bash the countryside generally. I am usually against subsidy on principle but is it worth paying out a relatively very small amount of taxpayers' money in order to protect the very fabric of the country? Yes.
Guy, near Canterbury, UK





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