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Why rural post offices are essential

Despite changing lifestyles, rural communities are significant users of post offices and clearly value them, says Brian Wilson.

It seems reasonable to speculate that post offices have special value to rural communities. Now we have the evidence to back that up.

Citizens Advice, which is the consumer watchdog for post office and postal services, has published a report on Rural Post Office Use. Its findings are based on a survey of 800 rural residents and 250 small rural businesses.

    See also: Funding 'vital' for rural post offices

More than half the UK’s 11,600 post office outlets are in rural locations, giving it an almost unique reach among service providers. Furthermore, the number of post office closures has been modest in recent years, assisted by a Government commitment to keep the network at around its current size. Post Office Ltd must meet an access criteria that 95% of the rural population lives within three miles of a post office.

Nonetheless, many communities have experienced changes to their post office. As well as welcome investment to modernise them, many have moved into other retail premises (becoming Post Office Locals) and some open limited hours at atypical locations (becoming Community Post Offices).

This investment and change has happened as a result of the Network Transformation Programme. What makes the Citizens Advice research timely is that that programme concludes this year and Government must soon decide about any subsidy it continues providing to the network after 2018.

  Fairly stable

In short, the rural post office network may seem fairly stable, but now is not the time for rural interest groups to take their eye off the ball. Whilst relevant Government Ministers have made some fairly favourable statements, with public finances tight it cannot be taken for granted there will be public funding to help sustain or invest in the network.

The research by Citizens Advice finds that rural residents use post offices more often than their urban counterparts. Some 98% of rural residents use a post office at some point and almost a third (31%) use it at least weekly. This is decidedly higher than the 21% of urban residents who use a post office at least weekly.

Amongst the broad offer at post offices, postal services remain the most frequently used, with 72% of rural consumers going there to buy stamps and 65% to send parcels. Alternatives, such as supermarkets selling stamps and parcel shops, are less accessible to rural communities.

Post offices are utilised significantly more by rural than by urban consumers to access cash and to bank, with roughly a quarter of the rural group going there to withdraw cash from their bank account.

  Bank closures

This is certainly relevant in the context of bank branch closures and the deal struck between the banks and Post Office Ltd, which allows almost all current account holders and most business account holders to access their accounts at post offices.

The same rural message emerges for those who collect their pension or state benefit in cash. Those living in rural areas are much more likely to do so at a post office than their urban counterparts.

Of course, co-location is a common feature of rural post offices, typically within a general or convenience store. According to Citizens Advice rural consumers find this particularly helpful and their figures certainly support that. Rural post office users are more likely to purchase stationary, newspapers, groceries and food products at post office outlets than their urban counterparts.

As noted above, the survey also gathered evidence from small businesses.

Headline results are that 95% of small rural businesses use a post office at some point and 39% use a post office at least weekly. Whilst rural businesses are more likely to buy stamps and post parcels than urban businesses, the greatest difference is that for day-to-day banking. Rural businesses are almost twice as likely to withdraw cash from a post office.

  Snapshot

This snapshot from 2017 makes a fascinating comparison with earlier surveys. Despite their relatively high use of post offices, rural residents are – it must be acknowledged – much less likely to go there than they were when measured in 2005. That said, comparisons with some 2015 figures may indicate that the loss of customers has levelled off.

The other big change is the types of services used. Rural consumers now make more use of post offices to send parcels, withdraw cash and obtain foreign currency. On the other hand, they now make less use of them to send letters, collect pensions and pay for vehicle tax. The internet has eaten into those markets.

Overall the report makes a compelling case for the value of the post office network to rural communities and businesses. As the politicians consider future support for the network, they might like to ponder one further survey finding, that a whopping 84% of rural residents describe the post office as ‘important’ to them.

This article was written by Brian Wilson whose consultancy, Brian Wilson Associates, offers policy research and support. He can be contacted at brian@brianwilsonassociates.co.uk Areas of specialism include rural policy and proofing, local economic strategies, public service delivery and neighbourhood plan support. He is a Director of Rural England CIC.

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