It's crunch time for the Post Office. The National Federation of Sub-postmasters (NFSP) has promised that this is the last time it will support a closure programme and it's adamant that if the government fails to grant the Post Office the tender for the new Post Office Card Account (POCA), the network will descend into meltdown.
Add in the fact that thousands of worried subpostmasters have little or no faith in the government, given that we're in the middle of a 2,500-strong closure programme, and it's hard to imagine much of a future for a network which will soon be almost half the size it was in 1979 when it had 22,500 branches.
However, an opportunity for a brighter future does exist, says NFSP general secretary George Thomson. The Scotsman, who worked as a subpostmaster for 15 years and as a postal officer and crown branch manager before that, and whose wife still runs a post office and Spar store in Tranent, near Edinburgh, has a rescue plan. It's one which he believes would once again make local post offices the focal point for thousands of communities across the country.
Banking on it
Thomson is adamant the network's future can be secured if the government backs the federation's call for the Post Office to become a bank - a model which has proved successful for a number of countries in Europe.
"The federation has a vision that the 11,500 remaining post offices can become the centre points for a complete range of people's postal and banking needs," he explains. "For this to happen, we need the government to buy into the idea of becoming a post bank."
Thomson believes that if the government acts now the vision could become a reality in the next two or three years. Before all this, though, the Post Office needs to win the tender for the new card account.
"If the Post Office doesn't win the tender for POCA mark two, then all the closures will have been for nothing and thousands more post offices will shut," he says. "The closures have to stop now. This is absolutely the last time we'll support a closure programme. If the brand is devalued further it will become worthless.
"If the government supports the proposal of becoming a post bank, it would send out a loud message that it is serious about the future of the network. The idea is being looked at, but it's now about getting the government to deliver."
Thomson says that there's not a single successful post office network on the continent without a post bank. "All the networks across Europe have had to ask themselves how their costs can be cut and none have been able to change around the fortunes of a network without creating a post bank," he explains.
The federation wants post offices to be able to offer an entire range of banking products, from savings accounts to credit cards. It would be similar to the Co-op Bank - an ethical brand which people can trust and which offers a fair deal. It would provide customers with straight-forward investment with transparent charges. "With these values, people would support us," says Thomson.
He's confident the Post Office is the front runner in the tender process for the POCA, which ends on March 31. While it's not certain who the other bidders are, they are widely thought to include Alliance & Leicester, PayPoint and the Co-op.
Thomson says: "There could be four or five in the running, but I see the Post Office as being in the driving seat to win. It will put in an excellent bid and I don't believe any other will be able to offer the same benefits given the network's geographical reach."
Government backing mustn't stop here, though, warns Thomson. He wants to see government and local authorities provide the Post Office with new work and stop granting business such as bill payments to its competitors. He's confident this will happen as Post Office bosses are now far more aware of the importance of winning new business.
"I believe that if the TV licence went out to tender now, the Post Office would win it. The Post Office management team have upped their game when it comes to bill payments. The Post Office's own bill payment system, Paystation, is a direct competitor to PayPoint and we're asking it to be put in every post office after the closure programme finishes. Postmasters with Paystation are earning £350-£400 a month and it's extremely competitive in the commission it offers."
Thomson also wants to see supermarkets take some responsibility for the trouble the network finds itself in. "Post offices are under attack from two sides - a lack of support from government and from the supermarkets' increasing dominance," he says. "The growth of the supermarkets has dragged people out of their town centres and communities for shopping trips and more people are shopping at one of the big four only.
"The supermarkets have to be stopped from encroaching further on the c-store sector. The government needs to look at whether there's adequate shopping already in an area before it allows a new store to be developed. I also believe the supermarkets should be charged an annual fee for the parking spaces they provide out of town. Every penny should then be ring-fenced to help build sustainable communities and in turn local shops. I know it would be an unpopular policy and the supermarkets would say they would have to pass on the cost to their customers, but given the amount they are making in profit each year it would be crocodile tears."
To achieve his aims for the post office network, Thomson has brought in reinforcements. He's instigated meetings with other trade associations in the sector as he knows that if government ministers are to sit up and listen, like-minded associations and bodies will have to work together towards a common cause.
He adds: "I've had meetings with James Lowman at the Association of Convenience Stores and Colin Finch from the National Federation of Retail Newsagents and there's a real case for all the main trade bodies in the sector to work more closely together. No one in our sector should be afraid to shout for what's needed. We all need to work more formally together in the future."