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'You'd have to count the cost if we're gone': Postmasters plea for support as hundreds of offices at risk

Offering what they say is a vital service to communities, postmasters want the next government to introduce a Public Service Obligation payment.

Image: Leah Farrell/Rollingnews.ie

HEADING INTO A crucial few years for the post office network in Ireland, “government myopia” has contributed to its future being in jeopardy, the Irish Postmasters Union (IPU) has said. 

Earlier this week, Irish postmasters warned that a third of post offices across the country could be at risk of closure in the coming years. 

Speaking to TheJournal.ie, IPU general secretary Ned O’Hara said the technology and capacity exists in Irish post offices to expand the services they offer but that a PSO payment from government may be needed to keep the network viable. 

“If it takes x million to provide a service that you can only generate y revenue from, there’s a gap there that has to be subsidised,” he said. “That was filled by postmasters, but that’s not sustainable.”

He believes the role the post office plays is a vital one, and would be missed if it was gone. Given that, O’Hara and other postmasters are also seeking to have more services made accessible through the local post office.

Remain viable

The IPU has been active in its warnings that the post office network is in danger.

There are currently 952 post offices in Ireland. In 1992, there was double that amount.

Of the ones left, 45 are run directly by An Post. 10 are closed temporarily leaving 897 post offices run by postmasters, who are self-employed and hire staff for the business themselves.

If the post office goes, they’re out of a job.

This week, the IPU said that between 200 and 400 post offices will become unviable and face closure from 2021 if no action is taken. 

For some time, there have been proposals on the table for how the network could progress and remain viable into the future.

In January 2016, a report commissioned by the government on how the post office network could be saved was published. The Bobby Kerr report, as it is known, outlined a series of measures that post offices could use to win new business and protect their incomes.

Postmasters have consistently said that implementation of these measures hasn’t been as fast as required. 

Support was given by An Post to its post offices as part of a new contract agreed in 2018. That financial support will cease next year.

The IPU’s latest strategy has seen it commission a report to cost and recommend a system that would introduce a Public Service Obligation (PSO) for the post office network.

“It is critical that the next government is from the outset clearly committed to a Post Office PSO, and the expansion of services,” O’Hara said. 

Public Service Obligation

PSOs are already common in Ireland, primarily in transport services. It basically means an obligation imposed on a particular organisation to provide a service.

The National Transport Authority (NTA) says that each year “funding is provided for socially necessary public transport services in Ireland”. Irish Rail and a number of bus companies provide these services under contract from the NTA.

The need for a PSO comes from potentially loss making services where there is still a social need.

Post masters would argue they’re in the same position. 

O’Hara said: “Our research shows that people value the network. We carry out 102 million transactions a year. That’s 1.5-1.7 million customers. They deal with it every week. If the post office network collapses, they won’t have access to those services.”

The union head said he understood that many of the services available at the post office can be availed of elsewhere. Even among the services they are advocating to be offered at the post office, such as CAO forms, motor tax payments and driving licences, O’Hara said that being able to offer these services would be a lifeline for many post offices.

While postmasters have welcomed measures from An Post to introduce new services, government action has been painfully slow in recent years according to O’Hara and this has added to fears over their future.

“Having a post office in an area – both urban and rural – generates economic activity,” O’Hara said. “If people get their social welfare payment at an office say, they’re spending that in the local area.

If they’re getting it paid into their bank account, what’s to stop them buying that thing on Amazon? I know we can’t stop globalisation. But there is still a place for the post office network into the future. 

Advocating for the post office network and its future is something that all the main political parties say they are in favour of.

In Fianna Fáil’s manifesto, it said the local post office “lies at the heart of rural communities and towns”.

It specifically said: “We will introduce a Public Service Obligation to maintain core standards for the post office network.”

Fine Gael, meanwhile, said: “We will examine the feasibility of setting up a shared service for the delivery of offline government services. This could be funded through a PSO.”

A more left field plan from People Before Profit would see the creation of a “local social hub” in every town which would include citizens’ advice, a library, tourist information and a post office.

O’Hara said that a bill put forward before Christmas, which was supported by Fianna Fáil, would make all government services available to access at the post office – although not exclusively. 

“There are people who won’t or don’t want to be digitally connected,” he said. “There is a population there, a target market of people who use the service. We also recognise the human factor in providing the service.”

In terms of how the PSO system could work, O’Hara said that Grant Thornton has been enlisted to conduct a review on what that may look like.

But it’s understood that it could take around €10-12 million to subsidise the industry. 

“We’d be happy to meet any targets set for us,” O’Hara said. “These 300 at risk of closer next year. It’s mainly rural but not just rural offices. It could be the busier ones, the urban ones who are facing higher and higher rents.

It costs far more to treat a patient when it’s terminal. You’d have to count the cost to a community if we’re gone. 

About the author:

Sean Murray

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