Government talks up potential of rural post offices as closures continue

Despite angry community opposition Ministers privately concede there has to be attrition

Ann Gilmore closes the door  on the last day of business at the Post Office in Ballindine, Co Mayo. Photograph: Keith Heneghan

Ann Gilmore closes the door on the last day of business at the Post Office in Ballindine, Co Mayo. Photograph: Keith Heneghan

 

It’s not going to be easy for pensioners who live in Ballinskelligs, Co Kerry who will now have to travel at least 12.7 km further to get to their nearest post office, or people in Gurteen, Co Sligo, who will have to travel 12.1 km to Ballymote, or the inhabitants of Eyrecourt, Co Galway who will have to travel 11km to Banagher, in the neighbouring county of Offaly to access postal services.

But both an Post and the Government were portraying the imminent closure of 159 rural post offices (none will close in Dublin or large cities) as a positive move on Wednesday.

The chief executive of An Post, David McRedmond, said only 4 per cent of customers would be affected and the consolidations would allow An Post deliver “enhanced” operations in the remaining 960 post offices that would guarantee their future.

For its part, the Government’s action plan for rural Ireland, has the retention of rural postal services at its heart. But despite angry community opposition locally to post office closures, Coalition Ministers privately concede that there would have to be attrition. Government sources pointed out that the transaction levels at some rural offices was at single figures per day, activity levels suggested by the report on the sector authored by Bobby Kerr several years ago.

But that argument runs both ways, opposition spokespeople pointed out on Wednesday. The Government’s rural action plan had included initiatives to broaden the services and appeal of post offices. Precious few of those promises have come to pass, condemning smaller post offices to be life prisoners of the analogue age.

Rural network

The rural postal network has followed the patter of railway networks and bank branches. Over the past 16 years the number of post offices has almost halved, down 765 from 2002 to just 960 now.

Is that the line in the sand? Well, under its new strategic blueprint the semi-state company has promised that no urban centre with a population greater than 500 will be without a post office and that communities will be within a 15km radius of a branch.

But underlying that will be the economic realities. Post offices will be expected to wash their face.

Under the new strategic blueprint agreed with the Irish Postmasters Union earlier this year, the existing post offices will begin to expand their offerings to the public, to take in a range of modern banking services, including current accounts, credit cards, ATMs and other e-transactions. Foreign exchange is already available on demand at each post office and the company hopes it will be in a position to secure the right to operate other State payments and services, including motor tax.

“Some services, may of course be more relevant for larger offices due to manpower of business volume reasons. But we are actively seeking new services and contact with Government is ongoing,” said a spokesman.

For his part, Minister for Communications Denis Naughten has said that every post office should have access to high-speed broadband wifi within the next seven to eight months, allowing a social hub extension.

Post Office Hub Working Group

But that is the difficulty. As the number recedes, there is always a promise of more services. But many of those do not materialise, or are always just out of reach.

Last year, a report from the Post Office Hub Working Group suggested a range of new alternatives, including post offices being used to access peace commissioners, office services, ICT training, coffee shops, and motor tax payments.

It recommended that this approach be piloted in four post offices, and then spread out to 180 post offices over 12-18 months. But the pilot never materialised.

“There were suggestions around post offices becoming shared value locations,” said An Post on Wednesday.

“Events really outstripped the report as we moved to a new phase in relation to the post office network, eventually leading to the agreement with the Irish Post masters Union and the current work on reshaping the national post office network.

“It’s fair to point out that many post offices already provide locations, space for community events and enterprise and this will continue.”

Another of the expert group’s recommendations was the idea of a mobile post office that would travel around rural communities in a van, much in the way banks did in the past. There are 40 mobile post offices in the UK but there seems little enthusiasm for the idea here.

The one signal success has been An Post FX.

“Our foreign exchange service is one of our real success stories and has been rolled out to the full network,” said An Post.

But if the service is to survive and if post offices are to become relevant to their local communities, it needs many more success stories.

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