Why post offices matter to isolated communities

You might not think that an MP who represents Stretford and Urmston, a constituency relatively close to central Manchester, would be interested in post offices in isolated communities, but last week I led a debate in parliament on this issue. 

There are two reasons for this: first, you don’t have to be rural to be isolated, and second, if you are isolated, the local post office can become an essential part of your life. 

Take Partington, in my constituency, which has been without a post office since August last year. 

Residents of Partington are now in the 1% of Post Office customers who don’t have a Post Office branch within 3 miles of where they live.

This matters because while Partington is a great place to live, there’s no doubt it’s an isolated community. Transport connectivity is abysmal, there are no rail or light rail links, bus services are infrequent to say the least, and there are low levels of car ownership. What’s more, its town centre banks have long since closed.

This means that the loss of the services the Partington Post Office used to provide, from banking and paying bills to collecting or delivering mail, are now very difficult for many residents to access- especially those who are older. We shouldn’t forget that approximately 18% of people in the UK aged over 65 have no internet connection in their home.

But the importance of post offices to a community goes beyond the delivery of services. They can be places that help tackle loneliness, which sustain independence, and where trusting relationships are built between staff and customers.

Let me demonstrate this with the experiences of my constituents.  

One man, aged 77, told me that conversations with post office staff were the only human interaction he had. When his local branch closed, he had to rely on Partington’s one cash machine to access money. He was recently mugged just after using the machine, which has become a flashing target for opportunistic criminals. He’s understandably scared after his ordeal and now relies on a friend to drive him to the closest post office, several miles away. 

Another constituent, aged 89, told me the loss of her local post office was “devastating” to her independence. In the past she used to walk to her local branch, but now her family must travel from Oldham, in the north of Greater Manchester, to drive her all the way to Sale Post Office so she can access the services she needs. That’s over a two hour round trip and a burden my constituent never wanted to place on her relatives.

The situation in Partington is replicated in our more isolated communities throughout the country where post offices are struggling to stay afloat. 

Like any other retailer, the Post Office must battle online competition, but it also faces more unique challenges. 

One of which is its relationship with banks. With high street banks, including 50% of those in Stretford and Urmston, closing en masse in recent years, post offices have increasingly had to step up to provide banking services in communities. 

The Post Office does receive revenue from the banks to compensate for this, but given the struggles isolated post offices are having, and the fact that over 5,000 high street banks closures since 2015 have saved those banks about £3 billion a year, there is a strong case for a more a generous agreement to be reached.

Finally, the cost of sustaining the loss-making post office network is significantly greater than the £50 million in annual network subsidy that the Post Office receives from the Government.

As the Post Office itself has said, the pressures on branches in isolated communities have increased, but the subsidy the Government have in place to support them has not reflected that, declining from £210 million in 2012 to £50 million in recent years.

In responding to my debate last week, Kevin Hollinrake, the government minister responsible for Post Offices, recognised many of these challenges. But I worry that in the whirlwind of Westminster politics, issues like this can easily fly under the radar.

If Labour is privileged enough to serve in government, there will be a mountain of issues to tackle. But amidst all the problems left to us by 14 years of conservative government, we shouldn’t lose sight of the struggles of the local post office, because to isolated communities, this really matters.

Andrew Western MP

Andrew Western is the Labour MP for Stretford and Urmston, and was elected in 2022. He currently undertakes the role of Opposition Whip (Commons).