Lindsay Mackie is a consultant at nef. She is leading nef’s post office campaign and works on Clone Town and Ghost Town Britain.
Today there begins another investigation into the future of the Post Office network. The BERR (Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform) select committee will be taking oral evidence about what should constitute the future of our unique and fiercely valued postal organisation.
It follows hot on the heels of the Hooper review (pdf) into the impact of liberalisation (read: deregulation, competition and sell-offs) on postal services. This review (with its recommendation that up to a third of Royal Mail be put for sale to other organisations) plaintively said that the future of post offices was outside its remit.
But as BERR begins its investigation, which will be speedy, it’s extremely important to put an alternative view not only to the Hooper recommendations, damaging though some of them are, but as importantly to the assumptions underlying the whole report. These assumptions could too easily be made the basis for decisions about the future of the Post Office network too.
The first thing to say about Hooper is that it already reads like a historical document. No mention of the disasterous failure of the whole debt-laden apparatus of private equity companies (one of which was reported yesterday to be sniffing round Royal Mail), no examination of the crashing of markets, no examination of the consequences for decent companies of endless takeovers and buyouts.
Planet Hooper is one where assumptions of public inefficiency/private competence still reign unchallenged. “We recommend a strategic partnership between Royal Mail and one or more private sector companies, with demonstrable experience of transforming a major business.”
But we know that public sector sell-offs and mergers to the fabled expertise of the private sector, often driven ruthlessly by either shareholder value or the insensate greed of partners and top executives, have awful results for customers – higher prices, no consideration of public good, and savage job cutting.
Hooper falls for this too. “Since the 1990s Royal Mail’s national distribution network is virtually unchanged, where modern European companies have reduced the number of mail centres by around 50% to optimise their operations. At Royal Mail postal workers sequence their letters by hand before setting off on their rounds. By comparison European operators sequence 85% of their letters by machine.”
To put it another way, job cutting is the way to go.
The Hooper review had an interim report last May in which it said honestly that liberalisation had only benefited a few big companies. This conclusion is lacking from the final report but it should be in there. And as the select committee examines the future of our remaining 12,000 Post Offices it should base its deliberations on the assumption that our postal service is a public good, that it is a complex network rooted in community, national cohesion, public utility, and that parliament’s job is to devise a future rooted in those values and not in the now derided beliefs that the public sector can only improve by being sold off.