Rural areas worst hit by post office closures in Scotland
By Joe Lo on
The information reveals that Scotland has suffered a net loss of 45 post offices since 2011. Twenty-three of these were in just three Westminster constituencies – Ross, Skye and Lochaber, Na h-Eileanan an Iar, and Argyll and Bute.
Urban constituencies have also lost up to one third of their post offices. Edinburgh South lost three, while the number in Glasgow South West and East Renfrewshire went down by around a quarter. Altogether 30 constituencies have lost at least one post office.
Campaigners, local councillors and trade unionists said that the closures are “a disaster” as they make it more difficult for people to bank, access cash and collect and send post.
They claimed that the statistics understate the extent of the problem as they do not take into account reduced hours and bricks-and-mortar post offices which have closed but been replaced with outreach services.
Post office closures
Researchers at the House of Commons in London compiled official data from the Post Office showing closures by UK parliamentary constituency between 2011 and 2019. The resulting spreadsheet has been released to The Ferret.
Ian Blackford, SNP’s leader at Westminster.
The constituency which has lost the most post offices – nine – is Ross, Skye and Lochaber, where the MP is the SNP’s leader in Westminster, Ian Blackford. “It can be a devastating prospect for businesses and individuals to lose this service in such small communities,” he said.
“The impact of post office closures on local communities throughout the constituency has been huge, set against a backdrop of rural bank closures and the disappearance of cash machines – with poor transport links making it even more difficult for some residents to access cash and other services.”
In the town of Mallaig, for example, the Spar shop which used to offer post office services closed down at the start of January.
It is due to re-open temporarily at the start of February. But local councillors told The Ferret that customers have to drive 40 minutes to Fort William to collect parcels from a sorting office and, if the Mallaig Spar shuts permanently, they will have to travel seven miles to Arisaig to use a post office.
Independent Mallaig councillor, Allan Henderson, said: “As banks have wrongly shut their doors, or reduced their hours it is vital that a post office function at least remains in Mallaig. Mallaig is a hub for all the islands and Knoydart as well as all the seasonal tourists who flock to it. A post office is a basic right – it means everything!”
Another independent Mallaig councillor, Ben Thompson, added: “Most people will know the frustration of having to collect an undelivered parcel from the local post office. How would they cope with a three hour journey to collect that parcel? That is what faces residents of the Small Isles or Knoydart when sorting is only done in Fort William with no collection point in Mallaig.”
“Small rural communities depend on facilities like the post office branch far more than many realise,” Thompson added. “With the closure of bank branches, the post office is often the only place for a lot of important transactions, not just for postal services.”
One of the targets the government sets the Post Office is that, in every postcode district, 95 per cent of the population should be less than six miles from a post office.
The Post Office often fails to meet this target in postcode areas in rural western Scotland. Between 2017 and 2019 the target has been missed in HS8 on the Isle of Uist, HS3 on the Isle of Harris, PA31 around Lochgilphead and PA21 on the Cowal peninsula.
According to the released spreadsheet, Na h-Eileanan an Iar and Argyll and Bute have each lost seven post offices, while Orkney and Shetland has lost five. The data suggests that 14 out of 59 constituencies have also gained post offices since 2011, including two in Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross.
But local campaigners in Wick say they have lost two of their three offices recently and are in danger of losing another, which is being operated out of a card shop on reduced hours.
Bill Fernie is the director of the Wick Development Trust. He said that when the Royal Bank of Scotland closed its Wick branch in May 2018, the bank said customers could use the town’s post offices. If the town’s last post office shuts down, customers will have to travel six miles to the village of Watten.
“It will be hard to post letters and parcels with no post office,” Fernie said.
“It’s also another hit to the already reducing footfall in our town centre and that will adversely affect other small businesses. Essentially, if our last post office closes, it will be another disaster for a town of over 7,000. It will cause a great deal of problems for many elderly people who still like to go to a post office.”
The Post Office data shows that urban areas have also lost post offices since 2011. They started with fewer offices than rural areas so had less to lose, but in percentage terms there have been sharp falls in a number of constituencies.
The number of post offices in Edinburgh South has gone down from nine to six, in East Renfrewshire from 12 to nine, and from 14 to 11 in Glasgow South West.
Over 5,000 Edinburgh South residents signed a petition to save Morningside Post Office. It was merged with Bruntsfield Post Office at a new address.
Campaigners warned that the Post Office figures underplay the problem. Many post offices are still open but have shorter opening hours. Wick’s has gone from 9-5 to 2-5 and is now closed on Saturday.
A steeper decline in permanent bricks-and-mortar post offices may have also been masked by a rise in ‘outreach services’. These are small part-time branches which typically use a village hall, pub or a mobile van to deliver post office services to communities which would not otherwise have them.
Their number has nearly doubled, from 979 in 2011 to 1,517 in 2018. Peter Hall, policy offer for the National Federation of Subpostmasters (NFSP), said these services were “vastly reduced from the customer perspective”.
Post office numbers have been falling across the UK for decades with the rate of decline slowing in the 2010s. The decline has been put down to a range of factors – customers doing more online, a reduction in the UK government’s subsidy, and the Post Office making it harder for managers to earn a living.
While Royal Mail was privatised in 2013, the Post Office remained a government-owned entity and most individual offices are run on a franchise basis by sub postmasters.
The NFSP’s Peter Hall told The Ferret that two-thirds of post offices close because a postmaster resigns and another one cannot be found. This is particularly a problem in rural areas with fewer potential postmasters and fewer shops which could take on post office services, he said.
According to Hall, very few people want to be a postmaster because it has become so hard to make a living from it. NFSP research has found that 76 per cent of sub postmasters earn less than the minimum wage and many struggle to take time off.
The UK government cannot simply allow the market to dictate the future of a valued public service. They must intervene. MARIAN FELLOWS, SNP MP
SNP MP for Motherwell and Wishaw, Marian Fellows, agreed. “We are in the midst of a postmaster crisis,” she said.
“They are getting such a poor deal that many of them are looking to hand in their keys. While staff suffer and communities go without, the Post Office has been celebrating increased profits.”
She added: “As the special shareholder, the UK government cannot simply allow the market to dictate the future of a valued public service. They must intervene.”
This was echoed by Mark Baker, secretary of the Communication Workers Union’s postmasters’ branch. He said many sub postmasters were reaching retirement age and “the younger generation take one look at the conditions of running a branch and look for other occupations”.
Over the last decade, the UK government has been reducing the subsidy it gives to the Post Office. The “network subsidy” has been reduced from around £200 million a year in 2012-13 to around £50 million a year in 2020-21. Whether there will be any funding beyond 2021 has not been announced.
Baker said: “For the smaller branches, of which Scotland has a large percentage, their government subsidy has been cut and is not commensurate with the costs of operating a branch.”
Post office network ‘stable’
A Post Office spokesperson said: “Our post office network is at its most stable for decades and there are currently around 11,500 branches open and trading across the UK.”
“It is inevitable in a network of this size, that branches close due to natural circumstances beyond our control, such as the retirement or resignation of the postmaster. When this happens, we always look to restore services as quickly as possible, as we know how important post office services are to communities. We are also opening brand new branches across the UK including Scotland.
“We have recently announced that the fees postmasters receive for providing post office services in their branches in 2020-21 will be 10 per cent higher than in 2018-19. The move forms part of a major new drive to reset the relationship with postmasters, to reflect a much improved commercial partnership…Additional payments are also being made to smaller, rural post offices for the services they provide.”
A spokesperson for the UK government’s Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, which is responsible for post offices, said: “We are committed to the long-term future of the post office network – and have provided nearly £2.4 billion in funding since 2010 to support this. There are now over 11,600 branches, making it the largest retail network in the country.”
The spreadsheet on all UK post office closures compiled by House of Commons researchers using data from the Post Office is available to download here.