If you live in East Molesey you may have noticed that the post office in Walton Road has suddenly closed. I was there shortly after the closure, browsing the newly refurbished display racks and witnessed a number of disappointed people being turned away. It was a busy post office and one I had come to rely upon, so why the sudden closure? Rumour has it that it was forced to close following an unfavourable audit. Certainly, the fact that the shop had recently undergone a style makeover would suggest that Meera was not intending to depart so quickly. There seemed to be an expectation that a new postmaster would take over from the sign on the door, but there is no guarantee and the good folk of Molesey will have to travel to Hurst Park Tesco for the next nearest counter service.
Post Office Counters is the only part of the former General Post Office (GPO) not to be privatised in 2013. Royal Mail and Parcelforce, who together made a profit of £742m in 2016, were sold off at 330p per share rising to 455p the very next day. Effectively, a cash giveaway of £1 billion to the city. The now private mail service pays out £220 m in dividends to shareholders per annum. Money which previously went to the treasury and could have been used to pay for teachers or nurses now goes into private hands. Post Office Counters was the poor relation left behind. Not making sufficient profit to be of interest to shareholders it has limped along shedding jobs and closing branches in a deliberate ‘slash and burn’ policy according to Dave Ward, General Secretary of CWU.
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The counter service was previously funded by the profits overall and the government knew before the sell-off it could not stand alone without subsidy. But when money is the only thing that matters the government is not minded to consider the cost to the community who have come to rely upon local services. The vast majority of Crown offices have already been closed or franchised; now appearing in a corner of WH Smith or a Costcutter store. You may feel this is of little consequence provided it is still in your local neighbourhood but should something go wrong you will have no means of recourse against these ‘private’ enterprises who will hide all data behind a veil of ‘commercial confidence’.
Under the cloak of ‘austerity’ and let’s face it more people voted to continue austerity under the Conservatives than to end austerity by voting against them, we are seeing more and more public services placed into private hands. It’s what we voted for so we shouldn’t be surprised. But we’re always taken aback when it’s our personal service which gets the chop. In Surrey we elected eleven Conservative MPs each campaigning on an austerity agenda euphemistically referred to as ‘balancing the books’ yet despite this we expect our own services to go unchanged.
Many in Surrey are in favour of public services being run by private enterprise as they are able to inject funds and bring in efficiencies. That may be true to some extent but the fundamental difference between public and private is that private work for profit and only for profit; the shareholder is king and unprofitable services are cut. We lose democratic control of our own public services and shareholders replace the public as the primary stakeholders. Public infrastructure and assets, built up over many years is being handed over to the already wealthy and worker’s rights are diminished in the process with many forced to become ‘self-employed’ contractors and join the gig economy, which is often how the private sector saves money.
As we ‘take back control’ on a national level we are losing control of the local services many of us rely on. Franchised or contracted out to the highest bidder, ironically many of them foreign; public money is converted into private profit. We go about our business largely oblivious to the fact that our public space, local schools, transport systems, water, electricity, refuse collection, tennis courts and post offices are being taken from the control of democratically elected local councillors and placed into the private marketplace.
In the fullness of time we may come to realise what we have lost under this government backed asset stripping, but the dye has been cast and the old adage, ‘you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone’ may well prove true. So what is the easiest way to close a much-used local post office without a public backlash? I really shouldn’t be so cynical.
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