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Twisted logic of rural post office closures
is an affront to community
Columnist, Scotland on Sunday
Filed 17 Dec 06
which was originally published in the Opinion section of
Scotland on Sunday on 17th December 2006, is reproduced on Land-Care
with the kind permission of the author and the newspaper
HUGH Mackintosh was serving behind the counter
of Birnam post office yesterday, much as he has for the last 56
years. He's 81 now, but that does not prevent him helping his customers
find their way around the complexities of the new postage stamp
charges, the pension arrangements for senior citizens and the last
delivery time for Christmas parcels to Zimbabwe. When I asked him,
however, what he thought the main contribution his combined shop,
tearoom and post office made to the life of this Perthshire village,
he said immediately:
"A meeting place. It's where the people
here come to get all the latest information and catch up with
You can just see how much that argument means
to a government obsessed by targets, cost-effectiveness and value
for money. You can't measure community spirit, or benchmark the
sense of belonging which a well-run village post office gives to
a rural area.
Over the years Mr Mackintosh has become a by-word for the calm and
imperturbable way that he offers help and advice, far beyond the
call of duty. One resident recalls how he took delivery of some
bedding plants which had been sent to her while she was on holiday;
he not only kept them until she returned, he watered them as well.
A local businessman sending a consignment of 50 or 60 parcels of
smoked salmon to clients abroad, was told to leave them at the counter
rather than hanging about; Mr Mackintosh weighed each one after
hours, sent them off and presented the bill next morning.
Pensioners in a muddle about their entitlements
are helped through lengthy forms. An absent-minded customer who
posted all his Christmas cards without a stamp found that they had
been retrieved personally by Mr Mackintosh, carefully stamped and
I do not know whether Birnam's post office will
be amongst the 2,500 earmarked for closure by Alistair Darling,
the trade and industry secretary. Darling announced last week that
the network was costing too much in government subsidies, and that
those which were losing customers would have to close. Of the 14,300
outlets in the UK, only 4,000 are said to be commercially viable,
and Darling says the loss-makers will have to be reduced. The fact
that their viability has been steadily undermined by the government
itself, which has arranged for pensions and child benefits to be
paid directly into bank accounts, rather than delivered locally,
and has encouraged the online sale of TV and driving licences, is
considered less important than the imperative of the market.
It is, however, a distorted logic. Removing the
£150m annual support given to rural post offices - a paltry
amount - may save money in the short term, but it accelerates the
decline of rural economies just at the point where most experts
are stressing the importance of encouraging them. Instead of concentrating
commercial activity in large urban centres, they urge, it should
be spread wider so that smaller units can thrive, reducing the pressure
on transport and the environment, keeping money circulating within
the community rather than exporting it outside, providing seedbeds
for more small businesses, and encouraging diversity. Everything
about the future economy, from pollution to road use, is beginning
to point in the direction of this diversification. It is an absurd
logic that cuts off the very fountainhead which sustains it.
But this government has never truly understood or even particularly
liked the life of the countryside. It has punished farmers for producing
too much, plagued them with regulations, encouraged centralisation
and fallen in love with the supermarkets which drive prices down
and hold the rural economy to ransom. Deprivation in the country
ranks low on its list of priorities.
Urban poverty, by contrast, is worn on the sleeve
of every politician, and forms the core pledge of every manifesto.
The Tories proclaim it as their new mantra. Labour boasts that it
has transformed it. Scottish Nationalists see it as their greatest
challenge. Liberal Democrats believe it is winning them support
on town and city councils. Billions of pounds are poured into the
regeneration of housing schemes without inviting opposition or criticism.
To complain that too much is being invested in urban deprivation
is to invite political suicide.
There is nothing to match this commitment when
it comes to the countryside. Here, by contrast, there is a popular
prejudice against over-subsidised farmers who pollute their fields
and are suspected of working the system to their advantage. Most
newspapers, commenting on Darling's proposals last week, talked
about the village post office as an outdated symbol of a way of
life that has been overtaken by the new reality of online services
and the mobility of the population.
"There will be a role for Postman Pat,"
said The Times grandly,
"but in the future he may have to pick
up letters from the pub."
This is so far to misunderstand the role of the
rural post office as to be perverse. When the post office goes,
the pub will follow, and with it the lifeblood of the community.
This is not just a disservice to tradition, it is a betrayal of
the government's basic commitment to sustaining the most vulnerable
aspects of society - wherever they may be.
This article: http://scotlandonsunday.scotsman.com/opinion.cfm?id=1872412006
Further reading recommended by Land-Care
James (2006). Closure of local garage indicative of a widespread
decline in rural facilities.
See SOCIAL/ECONOMIC/POLITICAL Homepage, filed 03 Nov 06,
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