On 11 October 2018 it was announced that 74 Crown Post Offices across the UK, including those in Penrith and Kendal, will be franchised to WHSmith. Taken together, successive franchise announcements mean the loss of 60% of the crown office network since 2013. This is a privatisation by stealth, which has occurred since the separation of the Post Office and Royal Mail 5 years ago.
These privatisations are financed using millions of pounds of public money, despite the fact that the public has never endorsed the closures, indeed they have only ever protested against them. In 2014/15 alone, £13 million of public money was used to pay compensation to get rid of post office staff, and the Communication Workers Union estimates the staff compensation cost of the latest privatisation will be at least £30 million, as it affects 800 staff.
Reports by Consumer Focus (2012) and Citizens Advice (2016) have identified issues with the franchising of post offices to WHSmith, including poor accessibility for people with mobility impairments, longer queuing times, which impacts particularly on our elderly and infirm, and inferior service and advice on products and services.
Franchising means the loss of local jobs with good terms and conditions as WHSmith replaces experienced, skilled Post Office staff with new employees in typically minimum wage part time roles. This is clearly bad for jobs in the Penrith and Eden area and for Post Office workers in Cumbria and nationally.
The closure of our Crown Post Offices and relocation to a WHSmith, also means in Penrith and Eden, the loss of a designed for-the-purpose office and a prime high street store, and this would contribute to the demise of our town centre, and add to the problem of unoccupied units in the New Squares development. It would mean the loss of an invaluable community space.
No explanation has been given as to why the profit-making Crown Post Offices are being handed to a failing retailer with an uncertain future, and what will happen to these services if WHSmith folds.
All Crown post offices are under threat of closure and/or franchising in future, and if the latest rounds of privatisations are allowed to go ahead, it could prove the tipping point for the viability of the entire post office network.
Our post offices are a key asset for the local community and the expertise and experience of staff there is invaluable. The relentless franchising and closure programme of the profit-making Crown Post Offices, points to a lack of vision rather than the plan for growth and innovation that is needed. Government should therefore halt these closures and bring together stakeholders, including the Communication Workers Union and industry experts, to develop a new strategy that safeguards the future of the Post Office.