Sleepwalking Towards the Last Post

The one thing I didn’t expect to be doing this morning was agreeing with Tory MP John Redwood on the plight of the postal workers in the currently still-ongoing postal dispute in the UK. For one, I am full of admiration for the merry fellows who, come rain or shine, ensure the message gets through – people like our very own post man, Andy, who always has a smile and a friendly word.

In John Redwood’s own words however, “The country is not grinding to a halt.” Here’s perhaps the nub of the real crisis that faces one of Britain’s last public industries – that technology has it doomed. Not only is email providing an unthought-of transport for many of our communications, but also, any attempts to bump up the relevance of the post by (for example) not delivering it for a few days are not only falling on deaf ears, but are counterproductive in the extreme. “Give me your bank details,” someone said to me a couple of days ago, “I won’t send you a cheque, I’ll pay you online instead.”

It’s a tough one. The post is like the messaging equivalent of the book: if one is old-style data in motion, the other is data at rest. Just as we don’t want to replace books with electronic equivalents for oh, so many reasons, neither do we really want to lose the sound of envelope on mat. Even such junk as catalogues has some merit, judging by the amount my kids pore over them as they spend their pocket money many times over. And the thought of a birthday mantelpiece being reduced to a bunch of printouts… don’t even go there.

Meanwhile, there are, oh, so many items of post that really don’t need to be sent. Junk – of course (apart from the catalogues maybe); utility bills; bank statements; cheques to cover bill payments; the list goes on. Why are they still posted? Because (a) that’s the way its always been and (b) not everybody yet has the email and Web alternative. To catalyse both requires significant effort, or a limitation on supply, which is exactly what the postal unions are providing.

Where will it all end? In 5, 10, 20 years time I have no doubt there will still be a postal service. It’s not just about the postie: Post Office Counters provide a wide number of services themselves, many of which are relied upon by a great many people – benefit payments, car registrations and the like. From an economic standpoint however, the counters are propped up by the numbers of stamps on envelopes and packages. As postage revenues fall, so will the numbers of post offices, and (hence) the quality of service. I don’t want to see that – but neither am I likely to send letters for the sake of it, particularly in times when there’s no guarantee of when they will arrive.

As someone who lives in the country, the absolute last thing I want to see is that postal workers go the same way as the post offices that are already closed – I do understand that for many, in remoter places, the arriving post can be one of the rare contacts. These things are important, and an intrinsic part of sustaining rural communities. All the same, I can’t believe that retaining the status quo for the sake of it is the right approach. Email and the Web are here to stay, for better or worse – and we need to face up to how they impact on even our most loved of institutions.

There are undoubtedly a number of services that we need, that we don’t want to put into the hands of a private company, and (most importantly) which we are prepared to pay for. Perhaps some of these are listed here; there will be others. If we want them, let’s think about how to ensure they continue to happen; the alternative is to stand by and watch as they crumble.

Sleepwalking Towards the Last Post

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