One hundred and forty years ago one of the most important buildings in Ipswich, at the time, was built on a scale and with a grandeur to rival the Town Hall and the Corn Exchange – the Post Office. It stands on the Cornhill, its steps and columns leading to the main hall which I remember from when it was the town’s post office, not so many years ago. It was built with public money, a monument to civic pride and to the belief that the post was a public service and that public services ought to be celebrated, not rationed out in a miserly way.
There was something a little sad about the move of the town’s Crown Post Office to Tower Ramparts, and I always felt that the Tower Ramparts post office was not big enough, but at least Tower Ramparts was equally central, a dedicated post office with dedicated staff, and I believe most people found it to be an acceptable alternative. I am hopeful that a really exciting purpose can be found for the Old Post Office, something that will draw people to the centre of Ipswich, but I don’t think it would be realistic to expect it to become a post office again.
What residents tell me is unacceptable, is to have the town’s main post office located amongst the books and stationery in a corner of the upstairs floor of WH Smith, halfway up Westgate Street. It was deliberately moved to a smaller space in a less convenient building in a worse location with less access, for reasons which had more to do with some sort of deal between the Post Office and WH Smith than it had to do with providing a service to customers.
A Crown Post Office is one which is owned and run by Post Office Ltd – still supposedly a national service. The staff who work there are employees of Post Office Ltd. The service is run for the benefit of the community to nationally agreed standards.
But now Ipswich will effectively not have a Crown Post Office. The post office in WH Smith is to be franchised – to WH Smith. Clearly this is not as the result of competition. The intention to privatise most of the Crown Post Offices must have been at the back of the deal done with WH Smith in the first place. The fact that this was not made public at the time of the move from Tower Ramparts was deliberate double-dealing by Post Office Ltd management.
Franchising means that the staff will be employed by WH Smith. Many WH Smith employees are on low-paid part-time contracts. In some places, such as Aberdeen, WH Smith have already started recruiting post office counter staff at £7.83 per hour to replace any existing staff who are leaving. Existing staff are paid around £21,000 per year which is a sensible wage although below the national average, but they are likely to be offered inducements to leave, so that they can be replaced with cheaper untrained staff recruited by WH Smith.
Just over a year ago, I wrote about the problems faced by the sub-post offices:
The East of England Coop doesn’t make a profit from Post Office Branches in its stores… So when the Coop tell me that the latest changes to the funding of Post Office branches puts their continuing existence at risk, I take that very seriously. I thought it was wrong to move the Post Office out of Tower Ramparts to W H Smith in Westgate Street, but the closure of the smaller branches in residential parts of the town would arguably have even greater effect on the lives of Ipswich people.
We now hear that the sub post office in Bramford Rd is closing, along with the Tesco store it is in. If WH Smith were to become bankrupt – which is not entirely impossible – there will no longer be a “main” post office in Ipswich.
I believe it is now clear that the management of Post Office Ltd has decided to asset-strip the organisation. Surely somebody must be profiting from destroying our Post Office service, otherwise why would they do it? The Post Office, alongside Royal Mail, is this country’s longest-standing public service, and both should be owned by the public and run for the public. I am hopeful that, alongside my Labour colleagues, we can get to the bottom of what is happening to our Post Office before it is too late.