POST Office bosses last night said there would be no more closures of rural facilities after agreeing a £1.3bn investment with the Government to transform the network.
The Post Office said that all its 11,800 branches would benefit directly or indirectly from the investment, which is subject to European Union state aid clearance, though offices closed in recent cuts programmes would not be re-opened.
Almost half will convert to a “new operating model”, covering either larger branches offering extended opening hours or “local style” offices, where a post office counter will operate inside a convenience-type store, also with longer hours.
But there were claims from the postal workers union and the Countryside Alliance that rural customers would see services downgraded.
The news comes after trials across the North East, including Lesbury and Lynemouth in Northumberland.
Northumberland County Council leader Jeff Reid said: “Anything that helps sustain the rural and semi-rural communities in Northumberland is all right by me.”
But he warned the “digital revolution” was still playing out and could affect the Post Office.
The Crawcrook “local” post office in Gateshead opened in January 2011 and is based in a convenience store. It opens 7am-9pm daily.
Manager David Brown said the office had become part of the community, adding: “It didn’t take long for people to realise they can make the most of post office services here at times that suit them thanks to our extended opening hours.”
Blaydon MP Dave Anderson said Crawcrook had lost its post office due to retirement and nobody wanted to buy it, but it successfully reopened in the store.
“It makes sense in the modern world to have longer opening hours that people want,” said the Labour MP.
Post Office spokesman Mike Norman said the programme would make the branch network attractive to customers, agents and clients.
“Our approach is to maintain the current size of the network,” he said. “If a community has a post office now, we want them to keep their post office.
“This programme is about helping make that happen by developing more sustainable ways of operating post offices and ways in which post offices can better serve customers.”
Subpostmasters who convert their post offices to a main style branch will be offered up to £45,000 to help the change, while those opting for a local style will have access to investment of up to £10,000.
The £1.3bn funding was announced by the Government in 2010, but this is the first time details have been given on how the money will be spent.
Postal Affairs Minister Norman Lamb said the Government has pledged there would be no closure programme, but stressed change was needed to secure the network’s future. He said pilot schemes had shown the new models were popular, would make the network more viable and give customers what they want.
But the Communication Workers Union claimed the Post Office was taking a “major gamble”, with customers unable to post parcels at many branches based on the “downgraded” locals model.
The Countryside Alliance also welcomed the investment, but was concerned the locals model could see many rural communities lose their post office or see services cut – such as manual cash deposits and withdrawals, manual bill payment services and on-demand foreign currency.