Lindsay Mackie is a consultant at nef. She is leading nef’s post office campaign and works on Clone Town and Ghost Town Britain.
When nef began to put together the Post Bank Coalition 15 months ago it was because we knew that this vital local economic and community network was being neglected and run down to the point where it might crumble to a few thousand post offices.
Successive governments have treated the Post Office as a series of problems which they hoped would go away- rather than as a trusted and flexible organisation which props up- and more- thousands of communities both rural and urban.
Today’s announcement then , that the Post Office is to get a dollop of £180 million Government (our) money to provide new financial services and to improve financial inclusion through credit unions and weekly budget plans is thoroughly welcome. The big banks have been made to offer up their current accounts for access in Post Offices and the poor will now be able to pay utility bills by direct debit instead of through the disgracefully over priced meters. The Government is talking about how it can levy retail banks to pay for credit unions to access accounts wherever they are in the country.
This announcement does show that the Government has entirely changed direction by recognising, and saying strongly, that the Post Office network is important, is highly valued by the people, and needs to be sustained .
The Post Bank Coalition – nef, the Communication Workers Union, the Federation of Small Businesses, the National Pensioners Convention, Unite the Union, the Public Interest research Centre – would go much further though, than the Government has today. Our proposal is that a Post Bank- of the sort which flourishes in Italy, France, New Zealand and elsewhere (South Africa is about to start one)- is the answer both to the business future of the Post Office and to our need for diversity in the banking system.
Our economy depends on local economies. At present they are badly served by the retail banks and could be must best served by their local post offices. At present the financial services offered by the Post Office- which it does do very successfully, being, for instance, the number one provider of foreign currency in the UK- are run by the Bank of Ireland so that 50 percent of all profits go back to Ireland. But worse than that, the Bank of Ireland is in a very shaky position and its capacity so far has not even included offering a current account to PO customers, nor children’s savings accounts. We on the Coalition think its probably not capable even of offering the new range of products adequately. It may have been the right partner at the time when the PO went into financial products but it isn’t now.
So we would have liked the Government to grasp that nettle. The other problem about the welcome first steps announced today is that they don’t do anything substantial for the big Post Office problem of the falling revenues of a third of all post offices. Only a publicly owned Post Bank, with all the revenues going back into the Post Office, with all the innovation and increased footfall it would bring, can do that.
But the Post Bank Coalition is pleased with a good first step to keeping and protecting this astounding and far reaching underpinning of the public realm.