Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 22 October 2014

Viewpoint: Closures blow must be softened

Post office closures are always painful, but most people would accept that they cannot be avoided in today's changing world. The only question is whether the right ones are being closed, in the right places, or whether any of the 96 due to be axed in Northern Ireland can be reprieved.

They have been chosen because they are little used, or are reasonably close to another with more customers, but there is a six-week consultation period for objections to be heard.

Now is the time for organising a petition or, better still, asking the local MLA or MP to make a formal appeal against the closure.

In principle, there can be no argument against the Post Office's decision to close 2,500 full-time outlets across the United Kingdom.

The network lost £300m in 2006-7 £ a sum that comes out of taxpayers' pockets £ and there is no sign of an upturn, despite every effort to expand its services.

The fact is that fewer people use post offices nowadays, because of direct debits and internet payments.

Many pensioners still need them, but most people use e-mails instead of letters and pay their utility and credit card bills through the banks.

In rural areas, it is a different story, where the post office can be the centre of village life, where people meet, talk and receive the payments that they spend in the local shops.

There is a justifiable fear that if it closes, the community could also die.

The Post Office has a solution, called its "outreach" service, whereby a subpostmaster, as well as running their own post office, provides a part-time service to nearby communities.

A van could visit them on a regular basis, or a shop could be used to offer a limited range of services.

As many as 54 out of 96 closures here are to be replaced in this way.

There is no comparison between such a part-time service and a conveniently-sited post office. But, around the world, governments have had to respond to declining demand and, in the UK, there is still a commitment that 95% of the urban population should be within a mile of their nearest post office.

In rural areas, 95% should be within three miles.

Reaction to the threatened closures will be closely watched, until mid-May, and public representatives will be expected to play their full part.

The suspicion is that Northern Ireland has been hit particularly hard, with 96 closures out of 2,500, and each one must be judged on its merits.

Sadly, the economics of maintaining the post office network are simply unsustainable in this electronic era.

An increasing number of services will be provided, at fewer main offices, but elsewhere those who have difficulty with transport must be assured that help is available.

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