Government commits to a sustainable future for rural post offices

Last week rural MPs were out in force in Westminster Hall for a debate on rural post offices. It was tabled by Caithness, Sutherland & Easter Ross MP, Jamie Stone (Lib Dem) who asked his peers to consider the “sustainability of rural post offices.”  He started with a story from his own constituency which has retained its post office thanks to the work of a member of the local community.

He told MPs:

“she has protected a fundamental pillar of that community. It is no surprise that a few weeks ago she was elected as a member of the Highland Council. She recognised that a network of local post offices is integral to the social fabric of our nation.”

Mr Stone’s comments were well received by fellow MPs who took the issue further.  Dr Neil Hudson (Penrith & The Border, Con) asked the House:

“This year, the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee produced a report on rural mental health, and pivotal to that was rural isolation, with people needing access to vital services, including postal services and banks. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it is beholden on both central and local government to work with communities to protect and uphold those services for the benefit of rural constituents?”

The shared concerns also included options to make the network sustainable.  Keir Mather (Selby & Ainsty, Lab) pointed out more could be done to retain staff:

“There is a point about staffing of rural post offices. Eggborough post office in my constituency has to close at 1 pm on most days due to staffing pressures. Does the hon. Member agree that specific support could be allocated by Government to meet some of those staffing deficiencies so that rural post offices are more viable in future?”

Meanwhile, Marion Fellows (Motherwell & Wishaw, SNP), the chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Post Offices, raised her concerns regarding the planned changes to DVLA services:

“On that note, the withdrawal of DVLA services, due to take place in March next year, is abominable, and will further cut the amount that sub-postmasters can earn. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the Government should invest in the future of the rural network, pay sub-postmasters enough to allow them to continue providing their vital services to local communities, and get more business into these vital outlets for rural communities?”

Sarah Dyke (Somerton & Frome, LD) echoed those concerns:

“This is an extremely important debate and I am very pleased that my hon. Friend has tabled it. I have met with several postmasters in Frome and Martock, in my constituency. They are worried that from 31 March next year, people will be unable to access DVLA services from Post Office branches. Currently those branches carry out 6 million DVLA transactions a year. I know that the range of services offered by the post offices in Frome and Martock are essential to many residents. Does he agree that we need to recognise the regrettable impact that the loss of in-person services at Post Office branches will have on our rural communities?”

The debate also considered the wider issue of the destruction of rural highstreets. 

Tim Farron (Westmorland & Lonsdale, Lib Dem) told MPs it is not just post offices in decline:

“It is worth bearing in mind that our banks have pretty much vacated our towns, villages, high streets and communities over the past few years. They must have saved themselves hundreds of millions of pounds in salaries, upkeep and all the rest of it. Does my hon. Friend agree that the banks should be forced by the Government to pay a far higher fee to post offices, so they can be sustainable in the long run, perhaps even becoming a front for all Government activity in their communities?”

His concerns were shared with Duncan Baker (North Norfolk, Con) who is a former postmaster. 

He said:

“There is a glaring hole on our high streets as our banks leave at an ever growing rate. The Post Office does a fantastic job, as we know. Why can it not be given the tools to roll out banking hubs up and down our high streets? Not only would this be a fantastic additional service to the post office network, but it would also help postmasters—who could perhaps run them—receive valuable additional revenue.”

Responding to the concerns raise, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Business & Trade, Kevin Hollinrake (Thirsk & Malton, Con) thanked his peers for sharing their experiences and said that as a rural MP it was a “subject close to my heart”. 

He went on to say:

“The post office network plays a unique and vital role as part of the UK postal system. Although consumers have more choice than ever when it comes to purchasing postal products, many still turn to bricks-and-mortar post offices. As the hon. Member rightly said, post offices are part of the social fabric of our communities.”

He went on to defend the government’s position:

“There are currently over 6,000 rural branches, which constitute 54% of the total post office network. Over 3,000 of those rural branches are described as the last shop in the village. Recent research highlights how vital these branches are. They enable people to access vital services without needing to drive or use public transport. They are particularly cherished by older people and those who might struggle to travel far to access services. In my constituency we have lots of bus passes but not many buses, so it is very important that those rural post offices exist, as they are also integral to businesses operating in rural areas because of their important role in providing access to cash.

Cash being the word, the Government have provided significant financial support to sustain the network nationally, adding up to more than £2.5 billion over the last 10 years. The Government are providing a further £335 million for the Post Office for the period between 2022 and 2025. As part of that support, the Government have committed to maintaining the annual £50 million subsidy to safeguard services in the uncommercial parts of the network until 2025.”

However, he acknowledged that money remained a concern:

“there is a limit to taxpayers’ money, and we are talking about £2.5 billion over 10 years and significant funding requirements now, in terms of the needs of both the network and the compensation schemes, which I will refer to in a second. We do not have a bottomless pit of money.”

His comments were challenged by Marion Fellows but Mr Hollinrake stood firm:

“There are certainly challenges ahead, but we continue to work with the Post Office to ensure that it is fit for the future, and we always welcome views from across the House on the network and how we make it sustainable for the future.”


Sign up to our newsletter to receive all the latest news and updates.