Wednesday 29 July 2015

Post Offices under threat - and why stamps are missing from branches.

As many UK readers know, the Post Office network has changed enormously over the last 20 years.  Once the local Post Office was regarded as the retail arm and visible face of the General Post Office and then Royal Mail.  Somewhere where we could get stamps, and where the postmaster willingly kept back new stamp issues for his happy band of collectors, and took in first day covers to send to the nearest Head Postmaster (First Day Cover Duty) for cancellation with a special postmark and redelivery the next day.

I started drafting an article about the changes to the network some months ago: there always seemed to be something happening which affected the draft and the notes I had made.  Now sub-postmasters are being forced to give up their livelihood in favour of a new model with lower operating costs for the organisation.  

Tonight on BBC2 television is the first of three programmes entitled "Signed, Sealed and Delivered: Inside the Post Office".  Billed as

"An eye-opening look inside the Post Office - an iconic national institution undergoing the biggest shake-up in its nearly 400-year history as it battles to reinvent itself for the modern world."

I suggest you tune in at 9pm, set it up on series-record, or watch on the iPlayer.  I'm sorry that my recent absence prevented me from alerting you earlier.  This will only be available to viewers in the UK or those overseas who have access to UK television.

Post Office branches, along with the Royal Mail delivery service, were formerly part of the General Post Office. Post Office Counters Ltd was created as a wholly owned subsidiary of Royal Mail in 1986, becoming Post Office Ltd in 2001.

Most of us grew up with the concept of Head Post Offices, where there was a Head Postmaster in charge and the managers and admin and counter staff were all employees of the GPO.  The other type of Post Office was the sub-Post Office, managed by a self-employed Sub-Postmaster (SPM) sometimes employing other people or members of the family.  In the original arrangements the SPM received a fixed core tier payment. On top of the fixed core payment, SPMs were paid per transaction.

In May 2007, the Government embarked on the Network Change, or Post Office Closure Programme, which resulted in Post Office Ltd (POL) closing nearly 2,500 post offices, including 500 branches, which were replaced with Outreach services.   The Closure Programme was necessary to help get the Post Office network on a more stable footing as it was making heavy losses.

Many of the offices which closed were not far from others, and the closure programme was designed to ensure that essential services were still available within an area.  Many part-time offices were closed.   And when the programme was completed we thought that was the end of it.  But it was only the start.

Post Office Ltd was still losing money, with some branches not generating enough profit (not income) to cover the costs of the SPM salary and associated PO Ltd overheads.

The next step was Network Transformation, a programme designed to "address the economics and lack of flexibility of the traditional sub post office operating model".   Back in 2012, the Government stressed that any conversion to the 'Locals' model would be voluntary - in evidence to parliament's Business, Innovation and Skills Committee*, Post Office Ltd said that "any move to the new Post Office Local model is entirely voluntary on the part of the subpostmaster. They will only move to the new operating model if the economics stack up for them and we will only introduce the new model where there is a robust business plan and where we are sure it can be successful and sustainable.   Any subpostmaster who wants to stay on their current contract terms—if that works best for them—can do so."   [* full link now added - plenty of good reading there!]

However, times change.  PO Ltd still needed to save money, but the Government of the day committed £1.34bn for the Post Office network to make sure there was no programme of Post Office closures and to update branches; in November 2013 the Government announced a further £640m investment in the Post Office network, from 2015 to 2018.

At the end of March 2014, there were 350 Crown Post Office branches that are run by Post Office Limited employees (now only 322). The remainder of the network was made up of 11,346 branches that are run on an agency contract basis.   The Crown Offices were where the Philatelic Counters were located: with many of the Crown Office closed and their functions transferred to a branch of a national retail chain (eg Lloyds Chemists, WHSmith) philatelic counters were closed and philatelic awareness, experience and knowledge was lost.

Central to the modernisation funded by the Government was the introduction of two new-style Post Offices.

1.     Main style Post Office branches which offer a modern environment and in many cases extended opening hours. These branches have a dedicated Post Office counter offering customers a full range of products and services, during standard hours. In most cases there will also Post Office service provision at the retail position, providing access to a wide range of services including Post Office Card Account withdrawals and everyday banking services during extended shop hours.

2.     Local style Post Office branches provide a wide range of services from the retail till and are open for all the hours that the shop housing it is open.

According to the Post Office "September 2014 saw the 3,000th branch transformed and more than 82,000 extra opening hours for customers.  This is not a closure programme and we are committed to maintaining our current network at around 11,500."

Most SPMs are members of the National Federation of SubPostmasters which says it is "committed to protecting and promoting the interests of subpostmasters".  The NFSP is the only organisation recognised by Post Office Ltd to represent subpostmasters on matters surrounding pay and contracts.  However, many SPMs are now saying that the NFSP has acquiesced to the changes now being forced on postmasters without consulting the members.  Their 'Protect our Post Office' campaign has not reversed the Network Transformation.

On the other hand, the Communications Workers Union (the Trade Union representing Post Office, Royal Mail, Parcelforce, BT and other workers in the communications industries) is becoming increasingly vocal and agitated over the changes to the Post Office network.  Back in 2011, they expressed concerns such as:

- passport, DVLA, currency on demand and Post Office financial services being excluded from Locals entirely, means reduced services.  Locals would also lack a dedicated service area and it is difficult to see how financial or government services could be expanded at Locals branches - two key areas being targeted for increased revenues.
(Also excluded from sale under the Locals model are special stamp issues, even where customers exist. And this is not just presentation packs, FDCs, etc, but the basic stamps in sheets.  Where is Royal Mail's retail network now?)
 - It reduces quality of service, with variable levels of staff training and knowledge, leading for instance to customers with parcels being turned away at a number of Locals outlets.

- it is likely to push postmasters out because it removes the 'core tier payment' which they rely on while placing greater costs onto their business by mandating extended opening hours.

Self-employed Sub-Postmasters can cope with many types of transactions, including the sale of foreign currency, processing of road tax payments, payment of pensions and benefits.  But the government would like to see more financial services and insurance products processed through the network, and single-person branches do not have the flexibility for this, nor the ability to undertake personal financial transactions and investments in a private situation.   Despite PO Ltd having money to contribute to the physical changes to a retail shop to accommodate the new PO Local set-up, some branches have no space to expand: they operate within the physical constraints of the building they are in.

In these circumstances POLtd is seeking alternative retail premises in the immediate area (eg the same village), giving notice to the SPM that his contract will be terminated when a suitable alternative location for the PO is found and agreement reached with a new operator.  In a village near here apart from the PO there are three other shops and a pub.  None of the shops could easily accommodate the PO and its associated delivery office with two rural van rounds, two being very restricted in size (one is a butchers, the other a newsagent carrying a few other lines).  The pub has only recently reopened after a long period of closure, and as we all know, rural pubs are also under threat.   On top of that the current SPM also operates a Post Office Outreach service at 5 other villages - in village halls and churches - where existing branches have closed!  Any new operator ought to be expected to continue this service.

The SPM has been careful since he arrived not to expand his operation to take on lines which would compete with the operation of the other shops (he sells a few sweets, some postal stationery and greetings cards).  It is to be hoped that the other shopkeepers take note of this arrangement and decline to take on the Post Office, otherwise POLtd will dump the present postmaster out of a job.


  1. Interesting piece Ian. Its a double edged sword, even for me as a customer of the PO; There was a time when I was a regular 'friend' of the SPM and had the chance to peruse whatever stock he received, usually on the day it arrived. These days (and a few house moves later) my local sub post office was closed and replaced by a one position add-on in the local convenience store. The upside is I have access to basic post services from 5am to 11pm, which has proven useful. The downside is the loss of the stock and a helpful individual. The shop now has one or two staff manning the shop tills and the PO at the same time, and its a busy shop. Guess which service takes priority.

    You have to feel for the Royal Mail as a whole as it is in a very challenging position financially as compared to even 20 years ago. The rise in internet communication and the change in the interests of the young have fundamentally shifted the need for the service. I don't believe we collectors are a dying breed, but we are a changing breed.

    Just as with other major national institutions, the current (or even past) delivery model for Royal Mail is unsustainable in the current form. The challenge is for them to find a way of generating a profit on the core business whilst also servicing us collector types. Something tells me Rowland Hill would be turning in his grave.


    1. Situation with stamps is an expected one methinks. It is the same as with any other mass-production goods nowadays. For example, if you want to buy fine wine your can't have it at each and every corner shop, instead perhaps you will order the wine over internet or will visit some special designated fine wine merchant (if your town have any). The same with stamps - although you can pay for delivery at any PO but for 'fine wine' (for collectables) you have to go to a special place. It has to be so... unfortunately for collectors.
      The only way round (which is impossible in my opinion) is do reduce offer of definitive stamps esp. when some issue is made available & demand businesses to glue actual stamps to envelopes instead of as-is printed mark of paid postage duty.

    2. The special place that was once called the 'Philatelic Counter'! Wheels have a habit of turning full circle but I doubt that this one will.

  2. I just though that some other once standard services are disappearing as well, not just stamps - Poste Restante for example... Everything is changing fast. In the old days you could send you luggage to train station in advance and there were platform tickets and 3rd class tickets and now it is all gone. Post offices are changing too. Maybe we will see electronic stamps like e-books and electronic stamp albums some day.

  3. Details of Franchising of the Great Greenford Crown Office have been published, ZCO Ltd are expected to take over its running, if the other branches are anything to go by, they will be trading as WHSmith Local. In details given in the consultation letter, there will be two NCR self-service machines in the new branch. Date of change expected to be January 2016

  4. Another Crown Office change

    009939 Bracknell
    Office to re-locate to WHS, due to redevelopment of the current premises (which is part of a wider town regeneration). Office will remain a Crown Office

    054832 Glasgow Crown Office (West Nile Street)
    Office opened 24/9/15 replacing 002832 St. Vincent Street branch

  5. The fate of Earls Court and Weston Road (Hove) have been announced, they will both close (or merge as the Post Office puts it) no date given for either

    I can only wonder how much was spent from the Crown Transformation budget on both Kings Walk (lasted 7 months) and Earls Court (lasted about 14 months) transformations.

  6. Oh dear more Crown Office under threat,

    Barry and Shaftesbury Square already being consulted on

    1. Shaftesbury Square’s fate has been sealed

  7. In addition to the closures detailed above, the Post Office have announced the following changes to the Crown Office network:

    Branch Closures
    023007 Rye Lane

    Branches to be run by WHS Smiths
    002012 Beckenham (Kent)

    003227 Beeston

    005519 Honiton (will have 2 ssks)

    Branches operating as part of the Crown Office network situated in WHSmiths - These offices are to have NCR ssks

    009306 Darley Street (Bradford)

    012941 Maidstone Town

    019136 Castle Mall (Norwich)

    029614 Wrexham Town Centre

    1. I had a look at the existing branch of Norwich WHS during the week. It has two floors but is small. Very small. They are planning to have the PO & SSKs at the back, but I think they would need to lose at least 30% of the ground floor display area - unless they knock down a wall! According to the info provided, there will be 4 SSKs and 7 serving posiitons. I reckon the present Castle Mall PO is about the same area (including seating area) as WHS ground floor. And of course they spent many thousands of £ on refurbishment and installation of the SSKs less than 2 years ago.

    2. Some results

      005519 Honiton will be franchised to WHSmith High Street Ltd and will be known as Honiton Post Office, expected date of change 11 August 2016

      002012 Beckenham will be franchised to WHSmith High Street Ltd and will be known as Beckenham Post Office, expected date of change 18 August 2016

      012941 Maidstone Town Crown Office will move into WHSmiths where it will remain a Crown Office to be known as Maidstone Crown Post Office, expected date of change 11 August 2016

      019136 Castle Mall (Norwich) Crown Office will move into WHSmiths where it will remain a Crown Office to be known as Norwich Crown Post Office, expected date of change 11 August 2016

      029614 Wrexham Town Centre Crown Office will move into WHSmiths where it will remain a Crown Office to be known as Wrexham Crown Post Office, expected date of change 18 August 2016

    3. Some results

      004112 Bury St Edmunds will be franchised to WHSmith High Street Ltd and will be known as Honiton Post Office, expected date of change 3 November 2016

      009320 Halifax will be franchised to WHSmith High Street Ltd and will be known as Honiton Post Office, expected date of change 8 September 2016

      019519 Barnstaple Crown Office will move into WHSmiths where it will remain a Crown Office to be known as Barnstaple Crown Post Office, expected date of change 15 September 2016

      003129 Stevenage Crown Office will move into WHSmiths where it will remain a Crown Office to be known as Stevenage Crown Post Office, expected date of change 8 September 2016

    4. "009320 Halifax will be franchised to WHSmith High Street Ltd and will be known as Honiton Post Office,"
      No, Halifax will be known as Halifax Post Office; Honiton is hundreds of miles away.

      I also note that the pdf link under Wrexham is also to Honiton.

      Now this may be PO Ltd cut and paste errors, or it may be yours, but please try to verify all and make them as accurate as possible, otherwise the information is not useful.

      Also, when adding further comments, please add them at the end, as a new comment after the last one listed, that way the comments will stay roughly chronological, rather than having July before May.


  8. Yet more changes!

    WHSmiths to run

    Bury St Edmunds (3 SSKs)

    Halifax (3 SSKs)

    Paisley (no mention of SSKs)

    Crown Post Offices to be run from WHSmiths premises

    Barnstaple (2 SSKs)

    Chorley (2 SSKs)

    Harrow (3 SSKs)

    Stevenage (3 SSKs)

    1. A result

      013427 Chorley Crown Office will move into WHSmiths where it will remain a Crown Office and will continue to be known as Chorley Crown Post Office., expected date of change 25 August 2016

  9. Another Wednesday, and yet more changes!

    Crown Post Offices to be franchised to WHSmiths

    003843 Kilmarnock (no SSKs)

    005946 Maidenhead (2 SSKs)

    002130 Felixstowe (no SSKs)

    008033 Harpenden (2 SSKs)

    002418 Lancaster (no SSKs)

    008539 St Andrews Cross (Plymouth) (3 SSKs)

    Crown Post Office located with WHSmiths

    008434 Warrington (4 SSKs)


    1. A results

      003843 Kilmarnock will be franchised to WHSmith High Street Ltd and will be known as Kilmarnock Post Office, expected date of change to be advised

  10. Another Wednesday and more Crown Office changes:-

    Offices to be franchised to WHSmiths

    002313 Durham (3 SSKs)

    017230 Peterborough City (2 SSKs)

    023323 Wakefield (2 SSKs)

    Offices to be run from WHSmith premises

    027614 Llandudno (no SSKs)

    016136 Lowestoft (2 SSKs)

    002801 Union Street (Aberdeen) (2 SSKs)


  11. From Royal Mail's May 2016 Pink Floyd Press Release:

    " The stamps will be available to purchase in 8,000 Post Offices from 7 July 2016"

    This confirms that there are 3,000 post offices which will not be selling the Pink Floyd (or any other special) stamps.

  12. And more changes …

    Crown Office to be run from a WHSmiths Store

    024004 Wood Green - 2 SSK

    008844 Dunfermline - 2 SSK

    018937 Chichester -3 SSK

    Crown Office to be franchised to WHSmiths

    002907 Lewes - no SKS

    012137 Banbury - 2SSK

    012555 Penzance - 3 SSK

    017539 St Austell - no SSK

    023201 Harborne – 2 SSK


  13. 20 More Crown Offices being offered for franchising

    003246 Willenhall, 004007 Blackfriars Road, 004642 Morriston
    004711 Londonderry 004925 St Leonards on Sea, 006004 Finsbury Park
    006321 Bransholme, 006604 Llangefni, 008026 Harold Hill
    008114 Dunmow, 009907 Newhaven, 012937 Leigh Park
    013002 Kingsland High Street, 014614 Holywell, 016832 Duke Street
    017026 South Ockendon, 028201 Kingstanding, 030420 Dingle
    043832 Springburn Way, 046832 East Kilbride

    1. Norwich Crown Office move to WHS has been confirmed for next month. Opening hours will be the same (or ten minutes later every day - 5.40 instead of 5.30 oddly.) No Sunday opening, no late night opening, and a great gaping void in Castle Mall.

      It will mean the handstamps have to be renamed, and we can no longer get 'Castle'-related FDCs with the Castle Mall CDS!

  14. And now we have a 24/7 post office (local) in an area with some residential properties, which is not that far away from the High Holborn Crown office.

    The letter outlining the branch is here (from a London Assembly member’s website)


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