Heaven sent

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With Royal Mail engulfed in speculation over privatisation and “post office closed” headlines a permanent feature of our local newspapers, is there a magic-bullet solution we’ve all overlooked?

Post Office Closures are a community problem

Post Offices provide a centre of communications – especially for the elderly and those without access to broadband or other amenities – but in many cases they’re just not financially viable. The government is keen to cut back on waste and market forces are pushing post offices to closure.

It seems like an insoluble problem. The government is less willing to subsidise failing post offices, and its private partners – hurriedly ushered in by Mandelson – can only tip the balance further.

Ultimately, perhaps the most common complaint from locals when another post office goes bump is that a crucial community hub has been taken away.

We’ve read the stories: Mrs Smith, the village’s nonagenarian, has failing eyesight and needs the kind man from the local post office to come round and read her metre. While others merely lament the extra time it will put on their journey to renew their TV licence.

Big issue or trivial sign of the times?

Is it really such a big issue or just trivial fallout from our modern lifestyles? It depends on where you live, what your communication networks are like, and generally how cut off you are from the outside world.

In Cornwall, villagers went as far as carrying a coffin through the streets to mourn the passing of the St Neots post office. While the effect on urbanites is probably minimal, the impact on rural communities is clearly not to be underestimated.

Government policies may seem to lack rhyme or reason and perhaps offering a solution is futile – but rather than blaming the EU for these measures, maybe we should be looking to see how other countries are coping with them.

The country that has come up with the most interesting solution as far as I can see is Austria. How to subsidise the post offices? Accommodate them in a non-commercial building with lots of funds at its disposal. How to put the post office back at the centre of the community? Join forces with another once-dominant force at the heart of the community.

The Austrian solution

The Austrian solution is simple – put post offices in the church. This measure is only in the early stages in Austria, but the elegance of the solution is obvious. As well as benefiting the community, this kind of symbiotic relationship would be a massive boon for both church and post office.

The church is crying out for ways to pull people through its doors, and post offices need a way to survive.

Georg Plank, a spokesman for Graz-Seckau diocese in Styria, Austria, last month highlighted the church’s dense network across the whole of the country, pointing out: “There are many enthusiastic volunteers in many parishes who could do it.”

Surely the same could be said of the UK. Imagine how nice it would be to renew your TV licence in the local parish church. Imagine how the church could instantly be put at the heart of helping the community by housing the place where benefits are given to the unemployed.

They wouldn’t be able to sell scratch-cards, but I’m probably not the only one who doesn’t see that as a bad thing. It seems like a match made in heaven.

Guy Mucklow is the managing director of Postcode Anywhere, a company that specialises in building web-based business efficiency tools built on data. It is the fastest-growing reseller of Royal Mail’s PAF – a key component in its ‘what’s my postcode?’ address auto-fill technology.

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