Our post offices need to be multi-purpose spaces providing a wide range of community services,
writes Jim Daly TD
Post offices across West Cork form the cornerstones of our communities.
They are a meeting point, a place to go about daily business, catch up with neighbours and a way to keep jobs within our communities, towns and villages.
I realise this as much as anyone else.
However, Ireland is a vastly changing country. The days when we gathered at post offices, creameries or shops, to swap and get the local news, are long gone.
Indeed, I have very fond memories myself of the vibrant buzz and excitement that existed at the local creamery when I was a child, but unfortunately life events have overtaken many of these outlets, too, with only a handful of them remaining open across West Cork.
Communications have changed and we are constantly updated on local and worldwide events through either news apps or social media websites, on our mobile phones or laptops. Pensions are now paid directly into people’s accounts. However, many pensioners cannot access email and internet, and services for this cohort of people must remain available.
Over the last number of days, I have been in constant communication with my government colleagues, highlighting the vital role our local post offices in West Cork play.
The challenges facing An Post, in this changing environment, have been apparent for years and were well set out by chairman of the company Dermot Divilly in his appearance before the Joint Oireachtas Committee last July.
Even since then, however, there has been an unfortunate and unprecedented acceleration in the decline of mail. This is a simple aspect of our changing lives.
Projected decline in mail usage for 2016 doubled and the trend is set to continue throughout this year.
This is because banks, businesses and utility providers, who would have traditionally relied on post to engage with customers, are now increasingly turning to email.
As the mail business generates approximately two-thirds of An Post’s revenue, the reduction in physical post is having a significant impact on the company’s finances.
Coupled with this, the Labour Court’s 2.5% pay recommendation to An Post staff added €8.5m to the company’s pay roll last year.
The report from the Network Renewal Implementation Group was commissioned by An Post for An Post – it is not a Government report. This is where the speculation of the potential branch closures and job losses originates.
Fine Gael remains committed to a viable post office network and is taking a number of steps to secure it.
My party colleague Minister of State for Regional Economic Development Michael Ring established the Post Office Hub Working Group to identify potential models under which post offices could act as community hubs, especially in rural areas.
It has considered a number of options, including a Shared Value Post Office. This model would see local post offices act as multi-purpose spaces for the community, providing a range of other services to customers, such as an internet cafés.
Minister Ring will present the report of the Post Office Hub Working Group to Government in the coming weeks, and is expected to recommend four pilot projects be run to test this model.
I can confirm there is no threat to the delivery of our post – An Post will continue to deliver post to every address, every working day.
To ensure this vital service continues and in recognition of the difficult financial struggle facing An Post, the Government agreed to give An Post increased pricing freedom. This is being done by repealing the price cap mechanism set out in the 2011 Postal Services Act.
Ireland currently has one of the lowest stamp prices in Europe, and my government colleague Communications Minister Denis Naughten has directed that any price increases introduced must be subject to prior consultation with ComReg – the watchdog for the communications sector.
Minister Naughten has also assured me that An Post must give due consideration to the impact of any proposed price increase on personal customers and businesses.
Fine Gael is also examining a system which could allow motor tax renewals to be paid through the post offices.
An Post has a number of significant and unique strengths, such as its strong brand and nationwide reach, and we in Fine Gael will work hard with the organisation to ensure this reliable service is maintained.
An Post is carrying out a root and branch review of the company – including the post office network with a view to identifying the strategic changes and restructuring necessary to maintain the company on a sound financial footing.
The Government supports this review which is expected by the end of May.
In all cases, it will be a matter for An Post to decide how to proceed, but I am committed to working hard to ensure the best possible outcome for our local post offices.
An Post is no different to the local shop, pub, creamery or any other service provider, if we the people do not use the services provided, then we will lose them. I want to see more services being offered at post pffices to attract more customers to them, which will in turn secure their continued existence.