AN axe is looming over Huntingdonshire s post offices and, rather than wait for it to fall, the people of the district are being urged to prepare their defence. Today, The Hunts Post is launching a campaign to Protect Your Post Offices – a campaign to try

Protect Our Post Offices Campaign

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AN axe is looming over Huntingdonshire's post offices and, rather than wait for it to fall, the people of the district are being urged to prepare their defence.

Today, The Hunts Post is launching a campaign to Protect Your Post Offices - a campaign to try to retain these community facilities in our predominantly rural district. Half the population of the district lives outside towns.

There are more than 30 of them in Huntingdonshire and all of them will be subject to a review in May of next year.

The Government ann­ounced in June plans to close 2,500 post offices across the country in a process that aims to stem some of the service's £4million a week losses.

The criteria for closing post offices are based on finances and geography: if the post office branch is profitable, it is more likely to have a future.

The message for readers is "use it or lose it" - support and use the post offices in your village and towns, or they may become another of the 2,500 to be axed.

However, The Hunts Post also believes that post offices have an important role to play in the community, and this should be taken into account when decisions are being made.

On the newspaper's website, www.huntspost24.co.uk readers will be able to support a petition asking for the review to consider the community role of post offices and not merely finances, and the possible isolation of people who cannot travel very far to get to a post office.

It also asks the Government to extend the range of work capable of being undertaken at post offices and give them a better chance of making a profit.

Postwatch East says 80 per cent of the country's 7,700 rural post offices are loss-making, and more than half of rural branches have fewer than 500 customer visits per week.

Readers of The Hunts Post have it in their power to help alter this by using some of the facilities at their post office (a full list of services is featured on Page 3).

No organisation, including Postwatch, has the power to veto Post Office Limited's closure proposals, so it's time to act now and safeguard the future of the network in Huntingdonshire, which, according to people running them, are "the backbone" of the community.

Mike Pierce, 48, postmaster at Warboys, said people did not realise, for example, that they could pay in or withdraw money from most High Street bank accounts - free of charge - at their local post office.

"Banks are closing their branches but they can use us to pay in their cheques or withdraw cash, and it won't cost them a penny," he said. "There are a lot of different services that many people are unaware of."

In Great Gidding, the post office has been run by Jed and Aruna Patel for the past 10 years.

Mrs Patel, 51, said: "We are the only business in the village. We are the village shop and we supply other services as well. The nearest surgery is in Sawtry, so we have a weekly medication delivery so people can collect their medicines from here."

She added: "We deliver newspapers to six villages. After Sawtry, we are the only shop in a five-mile radius. We are the backbone of the local community.

"When the local primary school puts on a play, we sell the tickets. People even phone us up when someone has died to ask when the funeral is."

In Eaton Socon, where the post office is part of a convenience store, cashier Claire McMillen said: "We are really busy, I think a lot of people, especially elderly people, would panic if we were not here, particularly the ones who live in Eaton Socon. The nearest post office would be in the centre of St Neots, and some of them can barely get here, let alone into town."

In Eynesbury, where the post office is part of the One-Stop chain, Liz Keys said: "Closure would affect all our customers but it would be a long walk into St Neots for the elderly."

In Godmanchester, where the post office is part of the One-Stop chain, Diane Nash, officer in charge, said her customers were worried about where they would get their pensions.

"We have three or four old people's homes here and they rely on us to get their pensions.

"We have been trying to reassure them that they are safe. We are part of the community and it does need a post office."

Government's bid to stem losses of £4m

THE Government decided in December that 2,500 of the country's network of 14,200 Post Offices would have to close in a bid to stem losses that had risen to £4million a week.

Hit-lists have already been published for some parts of the country, including East Essex and Suffolk where 67 of the 400 offices face the axe. A list of those earmarked for closure in Cambridgeshire is scheduled for next May, to be followed by a six-week consultation period.

The fact that an individual office is profitable for Post Office Limited will not necessarily save it, a spokesman said, and some rural offices will be replaced by part-time "outreach" services, effectively mobile post offices that call at places at regular times each week or within a local facility such as a village hall, as already in Hemingford Grey.

"The public consultation for proposed closures under Network Change, announced by the Government earlier this year, is due to be held in the Cambridgeshire area in June next year," he added.

"Under the Government's minimum access criteria, any changes will still mean that at least 95 per cent of people will still be within one mile of a Post Office in urban areas.

"The Government has recognised that fewer people are using Post Office branches, partly because traditional services, including benefit payments and pensions, are now available in other ways, such as online or directly through banks. This has resulted in a fall in customer numbers and an increase in financial losses for Post Office Ltd, making the current network unsustainable.

"Early in 2007, the Government carried out a 12-week national public consultation on a range of proposed measures to modernise and reshape the Post Office network and put it on a more stable footing.

"Its response to the consultation (published in May 2007) provided for the compulsory closure of up to 2,500 branches, with around 500 outreach service points being established to serve some smaller communities more efficiently," he said.

The Government is proposing an investment of £1.7billion (subject to EU state aid clearance) to underpin these changes and support the reshaped network in the future.

"Post Office Ltd is committed to serving the public," the spokesman stressed.

"However, to maintain a national network that is able to meet the challenges we face, the number of branches must be reduced."

The industry watchdog, Postwatch, estimates an average of four closures per Parliamentary constituency, with the branches being lost during 2008.

Ironically, the criteria the Post Office is using to identify candidates for closure suggest that new outlets should be added in parts of rural Huntingdonshire.

They are that nationally 99 per cent of the population will be within three miles of a post office, and 90 per cent within one mile; in deprived urban areas 99 per cent of the population will be within one mile of a post office; in urban areas 95 per cent of the population will be within one mile of a post office; and in rural areas 95 per cent of the population will be within three miles of a post office.

For each postcode district, 95 per cent of the population within the district will be within six miles of a post office.

Postwatch East says 80 per cent of the country's 7,700 rural post offices are loss-making, and more than half of rural branches have fewer than 500 customer visits per week. Even after the closures there will still be more post offices in the country than branches of the major high street banks.

The Government has promised to continue the £150 million-a-year "social network payment" to support rural post offices by helping pay sub-postmasters and infrastructure costs.

Of the 30-plus branches in the Hunts Post area only six are classified as "urban" - two each in Huntingdon, St Neots and St Ives - defined as a community with 10,000 or more inhabitants in a continuous built-up area. The rest are "rural".

No organisation, including Postwatch, has the power to veto Post Office Limited's closure proposals.

More than just a place to buy stamps

POST offices do not just do stamps. They are a focus for a huge range of services from insurance to banking, council services to fishing licences.

The smaller offices do not offer the full range, but many readers will be surprised at what they can do through their local office. And the more they use it, the more likely it is to survive the axeman's coming round.

Postal services include Special Delivery 9am, Special Delivery Next Day, Airsure for priority handling and tracking of overseas mail, International Signed for (the equivalent of recorded delivery here), standard services for letters and small parcels, philatelic items, redirections service, Parcelforce Worldwide guaranteed services, Local Collect (which enables people to pick up their mail order goods), support services (such as poste restante and certificates of postage) and mail order returns.

Travel services include checking passport applications and sending them priority, foreign currency and travellers' cheques, travel insurance, EU medical insurance, and (on-line) home delivery of foreign currency, car rental, airport car parking, hotel bookings and transport to airports.

For drivers at some branches there is a photo-licence application checking and despatch service, issue of international driving permits and vehicle excise duty (tax discs).

The Post Office accepts payment and pre-payments towards a range of bills including telephone, cable TV, gas, electricity, water, TV licence, mail order, Council Tax, council rent, housing association rent, Inland Revenue self-assessment bills, insurance, record/CD/book club bills and TV and video rentals. You can buy Post Office savings stamps, and Post Office paystation is a new bill payment terminal being rolled out in parts of the network.

Leisure services include the sale of fishing and game licences, stationery, commemorative coins from the Royal Mint, National Lottery tickets, and all Post Offices accept orders to send flowers by post or courier.

Money transfers can be made by postal order, special gift postal order and MoneyGram for international transfers.

Financial services include free paying-in and cash withdrawals to and from accounts with major retail banks, National Savings & Investment products, such as Premium Bonds and savings accounts, card accounts (including those for withdrawal of pensions), car and home insurance, bonds, child trust funds and even personal loans.

Telephone services include Broadband, a HomePhone service, mobile top-ups and phonecards for use in the UK and abroad.