�1.3bn Post Office investment ‘no good without more business’
Subpostmasters in Norfolk have given a cautious welcome to news of a �1.3bn investment in the Post Office, and say the best present government could give them is extra business.
Over the next three years around 6,000 post offices will be converted into more modern branches in what the Post Office describes as a 'once-in-a-generation'' opportunity to revitalise the network.
The government has repeated its pledge that no more post offices will close, but John Smith, secretary of the Norwich and district branch of the National Federation of SubPostmasters, said: 'The biggest and brightest new offices are no good without business - and that's what government's been taking away. Just licking stamps isn't going to keep post offices in business. We have got to stop this haemorrhaging.'
The Post Office said all its 11,800 branches would benefit from the investment, which was subject to European Union state aid clearance.
Almost half of post offices will convert to a 'new operating model', covering either larger branches, which will offer extended opening hours, or 'local style' offices, where a post office counter will operate inside a convenience-type store, also with longer hours.
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Subpostmasters who convert to a main style branch will be offered up to �45,000 to help the change, while those opting for a local style will have access to investment of up to �10,000.
The programme was aimed at making the post office less dependent on subsidies, said the post office, adding that the number of weekly visits to offices had fallen from 28 million to 20 million in the past 12 years.
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Mr Smith said the national federation had worked hard to get the investment package which would help Norfolk post offices.
But he added: 'There's a vital thing missing - new business from the government. They've promised it in the past but they still haven't delivered.'
Mr Smith said the number of post offices nationally had fallen from 18,000 to about 11,500 as a result of the last government's closure programme.
Over the past 12 months at least 10 post offices in the Norwich and district branch had closed, and, although the post office was now committed to replacing them, it was proving difficult because the lack of business they were able to transact meant they were not attractive financial propositions, especially in Norfolk's sparsely-populated rural areas.
Post offices were no longer able to issue TV licences and were also losing 90pc of National Savings and Investment (NSI) business. Motorists were also being heavily encouraged to buy their tax discs on-line.
Rural residents wanted and valued their local post office and were frustrated at being told they had to travel to larger branches in towns and cities to pick up government forms or transact certain business, said Mr Smith, subpostmaster at Rockland St Mary Post Office.
Andrew Worsdale, who lost his Sheringham sub-post office in country-wide government cuts in 2008, agreed.
Mr Worsdale, who took over as Holt subpostmaster in 2010, said they had been promised that post offices would become the 'front office of government', but this remained an aspiration.
He did not want to 'go down the retail route' and did not believe that was what Holt residents were 'crying out for'.
Postal affairs minister, and North Norfolk MP, Norman Lamb said the investment by government was a vote of confidence in the Post Office's future.
He hoped to meet Norfolk subpostmasters' federation representatives soon to discuss ways in which more services could be offered through the rural network.
'They are absolutely right,' said Mr Lamb. 'One of my frustrations is that we have a network reaching into the remotest areas and it is under-valued and under-exploited.'
Sarah Lee, head of policy at the Countryside Alliance, said they welcomed the investment but were concerned that the Post Office locals model could see many rural communities lose their post office, or see a significant reduction in the number of services.
She added: 'Our greatest fear is that these changes will leave many of the most vulnerable members of society in rural areas unable to access basic services, transforming vast swathes of the countryside into a desert for financial services.'