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Mole Meade is dedicated to the Post Office. The trade union rep has spent half of his life working as a clerk, while also representing its thousands of employees.
But after 30 years, his loyalty to the firm has shifted. He now frequently fights alongside councillors and community leaders to halt the disappearance of post offices from British high streets, as branches are closed across the country.
“I’ve seen it go through rack and ruin,” says Meade, who is now an executive at the Communication Workers Union.
Last year, Lewisham in London lost the last two Post Offices branches directly controlled by the company, known as “crown” sites, as Sydenham and New Cross pulled down their shutters for good in a move local councillor Alan Hall described as a “national scandal”.
But the Post Office has been under immense pressure to shut down those branches. Crown post offices now make up just 2% of the national postal network, having fallen from 373 branches in 2009, to 262 in March last year. Mostly, they have been subsumed into local news agents, or WHSmiths franchises.
The closures are particularly poignant in light of concerns about the death of the high street, and discussions about how to draw more customers in as numbers continue to fall nationwide. Forecasters predict some 175,000 jobs could be lost as footfall declines again this year.
“You’ve got a government currently banging on about ‘oh, we’ve got to do something about the high street’, and they’re the ones killing it off,” Meade said.
The Sydenham closure was “probably one of the most offensive”, he said. It wasn’t just a place to post a letter or a package – as a full service site it was also where people could apply for work permits, or sort out issues with their immigration status.
“What happened in Sydenham, this happens in every office that’s got UK border agency facilities. People who come to Britain for economic, political, asylum reasons have to get UK border agency facilities at some point and with the closure of Sydenham, those facilities evaporated,” he told HuffPost UK.
But like so many decisions driven by austerity over the past few years, the closure made sense on paper. Services were not withdrawn completely, and people could go to WHSmith stores for some of the things the post office did for them. But as with similar cuts across the UK, there was a quiet but profound impact on the people who relied on the Crown sites.
The slow decline of the post offices is part of our new series, What It’s Like To Lose. After nearly eight years of shrinking local budgets, HuffPost UK has been focusing on thedisappearing bus routes, leisure centres, clinics and job centres that together paint a picture of what life is like for millions of people who rely on public services in the age of austerity.
Now, the shuttered branch in south London’s New Cross stands vacant. “This was a post office that was very well used – always queues out the door. So there was very much a need in the neighbourhood, and we didn’t want either of them to go,” says Laura Wirtz, a local resident.
Wirtz was an instrumental figure in the campaign against the New Cross closure, heading up the petition of 3,000 signatures which was eventually presented to Downing Street last February.
She told HuffPost UK: “When I started the campaign and started taking the petitions around the pubs, I would hear comments like ‘Oh, we’re going to lose that as well?’.”
“We’d already lost the bank, and the library was only kept open for two days a week but then volunteers are running it. We’re just losing all of our essential services and the only things that still exist are private, promotional spaces.
“There’s nothing owned by us, nothing that’s for the community and so there’s just a general feeling that the amenities we depend on, they’re not going to be open for us, and there’s nothing we can do about it.”
But this is not simply a story of one post office being closed, says Lewisham councillor Joe Dromey, who opposed the closure of the New Cross site. This was a whole constellation of pressures. “It’s part of a wave of closures of Crown post offices we’ve seen in recent years which has been an effort by the post office to save money and cut costs,” he told HuffPost UK.
“The reason why it delivers big savings for the Post Office is because it replaces decent, well-paid union organised jobs on secure terms, with low-paid, insecure work. The savings are on the back of undermining decent, quality work,” he said.