The Post Office has been putting undue pressure on community shops to take up ‘local’ contracts, according to the Plunkett Foundation. James Alcock, Plunkett’s head of frontline, says: “A lot have converted because they feel that if they don’t they’ll lose their post office.
“In fact there are 101 contracts. The Post Office has been telling them things that aren’t quite true. We’ve had to step in numerous times to enable shops to get the contract that they want.”
Mr Alcock says that, typically, moving from a traditional contract to a local contract reduces a community post office’s guaranteed income from around £11,000 to £3,000 a year.
Local contracts allow shops to choose whether to run their post office from a till or a secure ‘fortress’. They also tie post office hours to shop opening hours and restrict the amount of money a branch can hold.
Julie Noakes of Bradfield Southend Village Stores, who represents Plunkett at the Consumer Futures council for the Post Office, says that this new style of post office frees up sales space, but it does not suit every shop: “It doesn’t always work from a till,” she says. “We consulted our staff and customers about this and the fortress won hands down. Customers as well as staff felt more secure.
“Under the new contract there’s a degree of restriction on the amount of money they can hold in the till,” she adds. “They may have to close shop and move the money out.”
Ms Noakes is hopeful that new click and collect parcel services will increase footfall for community post offices, but adds that shops could struggle to find space for them.
Another concern is the requirement under the local contract to open the post office whenever the shop is open. James Alcock says: “This presents a training issue for community shops, especially ones that rely on volunteers.
“We’ve gone back to the Post Office several times and said that’s just not possible for some shops. They need flexibility. In some cases the Post Office has listened, but it takes a long time to get to that point.”
Plunkett figures show that in 2013, 72% of the UK’s 309 community-owned village shops offered postal services. At least one rural community pub, the Anglers Rest in Bamford, Derbyshire, also hosts a post office. Around 223 of Britain’s 11,500 post offices are run by community-owned village shops or pubs.
Julie Noakes says: “It isn’t easy for community post offices. They might be using volunteers, but there has to be a dedicated person who has to sign. The Post Office has changed their requirements and they’re having to be more flexible.”
Alfrick and Lulsley Community Shop in Worcestershire has signed a business to business contract without a personal guarantor with the Post Office, so the company, rather than a volunteer or staff member, can assume liability.
James Alcock says this kind of flexibility will enable community shops to offer essential postal services. “Many community shops lose out financially from hosting a post office,” he says. “We need more consistent advice and support and policies that don’t penalise community shops for having volunteers. We also need more sensitivity that these shops are delivering postal services as a community service.”
A Post Office spokesperson said: “We see rural branches as an integral part of our network and we’re supporting them with a new £20m Community Branch Fund for around 3,400 branches that operate as the only retail outlet in their community. Around 5% of those designated community post offices are also run by their local community.
“The fund can be used for a wide range of improvements such as changing the branch format to open plan, new signage, or gearing up for new services such as click and collect.
“The postmaster or the community owner of a community branch can choose to remain on the existing contract, including keeping fixed pay as well as benefiting from Branch Fund investment. In some cases modernising and adopting the local model is the best option. Each branch needs to be considered on a case by case basis and Post Office aims to take a flexible approach.”