You may have seen posters up in the main Post Office on Lavender Hill, saying that there are ‘changes’ ahead, and that they welcome views. It’s not entirely clear what the change is about – at first glance, the only proposed changes they consulted on (see this pdf document for details) are about the accessibility of the branch.
If you were there this weekend, you may also have seen Mole Meade from the Commercial Workers Union (which covers, among other areas, those who work in Post Offices), pictured above, with a petition as part of the “#Save our Post Office” campaign.
The real change is nothing to do with the consultation on ‘access to the branch’, but rather that in November this post office is changing from a major office that is centrally managed by Royal Mail itself (known as a ‘Crown’ Post Office – typically the top 2% of all post offices, covering the largest and most important branches), to instead be a franchise run by a separate company, along more commercial lines. The Post Office has the right to make this change without any consultation, so unless there are quick policy changes it’s going to happen whether we (and the post office staff) like it or not.
Franchised Post Offices aren’t unusual – indeed the small post office at the back of Costcutters on Queenstown Road (near the eastern end of Lavender Hill) is an example of one. At the end of last year the Post Office proposed to franchise 78 branches to WHSmith, who have made a business out of taking over formerly state-run post offices.
But franchising is controversial – partly because the franchisee firms tend to offer lower wages, and less job security, than the previous Crown Post Offices did. Technically speaking, the only proposed change at Lavender Hill is a slight extension in opening hours (it will open on Saturday afternoons). In the longer term the change may make it easier to close down the post office completely if it underperforms, although as a consistently busy urban post office we don’t see that as a particularly high risk. Recent research by Citizens Advice, using mystery shoppers, found the overall changes were mixed: some aspects of service improved when branches were privatised, but others got worse, maybe reflecting the higher staff turnover and lower wages in a ‘general retail’ environment compared to a centrally run Post Office. Franchisees have a tendency to co-locate post offices with other businesses (usually shops, but sometimes pubs or restaurants) to cut costs, so we may see it move to somewhere else in the area (and the consultation on ‘access in to the premises’ – where one of the two entrances is up some steps – may be a way of justifying such a relocation).
The official consultation documents don’t say who will take over our post office, though we have heard some reports that rather than the ‘usual suspect’ of WHSmith, it may instead be a firm at least loosely linked to ZCO Limited, a small company that runs several existing Post Offices (as well as stationery shops). There seems to be a rather worrying amount of controversy around the company! This article on the Faversham Eye is particualrly forthright:
Since the privatization mania of the 1980’s, the title of most incompetent company getting a fat government contract has been hotly contested. Though not as well as known or as big as many of the others, ZCO/Potent are well placed to compete for this illustrious title. All the key elements are there – an appalling record of broken promises, poor financial reporting and dismal performance.
There has been debate in Parliament about the company – for example in January, the future of Sydenham’s Post Office was discussed at Westminster, with concern being expressed that “the franchise has been awarded to a stationery company, ZCO Ltd, with no good track record of running post offices”. For an exhaustive report in to the firm, see this post about ZCO and Acocks Green Post office.
To be fair there has, however, been some evidence of new and imaginative approaches in some cases – for example in Huddersfield the firm seems to have combined a Post Office with a Cafe-Bar and Bistro rather than a stationery outlet.
We’ll keep you posted on how this develops, in particular if we hear more details of which company is taking over and what they are planning for the office and the staff (and do get in touch with any insights!). Whatever happens, it looks as though change is definitely ahead for our Post Office.