New watchdog's warning to Royal Mail

NEW post watchdog Charles Winstanley has branded the Royal Mail a 'Victorian structure' and warned that post offices in East Anglia face a bleak future.

NEW post watchdog Charles Winstanley has branded the Royal Mail a 'Victorian structure' and warned that post offices in East Anglia face a bleak future.

Dr Winstanley, chairman of Postwatch East of England, believes the outlook for tens of thousands of staff is bleak as the Royal Mail Group falls behind competitors from leaner firms.

He wants to see other firms move in and offer postal services, and argues that Royal Mail services are shrinking.

He said: "In 2006 the market is being liberalized, opened up to all-comers. We are quite alarmed by the shrinkage of services, the collapse of the Royal Mail group. We want other operators to move in to postal services.

"The Post Office is essentially a Victorian structure - and working practices, it is very overmanned. A single postman at the moment only covers 500 houses, that has not changed since Victorian times. There is a degree of complacency which has not helped.

"Some very modern companies that are light on their feet already and using IT to distribute their parcels and packages will apply that to the postal service in a way that will employ far less people and do it more cheaply.

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"The Post Office is not reinventing itself fast enough, new players will come in and bypass the Royal Mail Group. The consumers will benefit, but the tens of thousands of people who work for the Royal Mail Group may not fair so well."

Dr Winstanley, a former management consultant from North Norfolk, believes the viability of rural post offices is not good and in Norfolk's urban areas 150 post offices are due to close this year, one of the highest rates of closure in the country.

He said: "A major concern is the closure of post offices. What often drives this is a sub-postmaster wants to retire and they give him or her very attractive terms, they can easily earn twice as much by early retirement than selling the business.

"So in East Anglia they are persuading postmasters in urban and rural areas to retire and the post office is then closing. The worry is that a lot of postmasters are nearing retirement age."

Dr Winstanley raised concerns about late mail deliveries and pensioners' ability to receive their benefits over the counter when the new universal banking system of paying many people's money direct in to their bank accounts starts.

He fears this will harm post office viability - as they get paid per transaction - and they could also lose passing trade in the shops that are often part of the post office for those pensioners who accept having benefits paid in to bank accounts.

Patrick Breen, spokesman for the Royal Mail, said they are committed to keeping post office branches open where possible in rural areas and have a team of 30 rural advisers.

Mr Breen said in urban areas the reality was that there were too many post offices chasing too few customers and sub-postmasters who are unable to make a living are closing down. He said the Post Office is losing £3 million a week and making no changes is not an option.

Mr Breen said it was unfair to say the business was operating in a Victorian way, with many jobs going in the Royal Mail and a new chairman and chief executive committed to getting the business into shape.

Dr Winstanley, who was appointed last month launches the new Postwatch office in Ely, Cambridgeshire tomorrow.

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