Save our Post Offices (whatever the cost)

David Cameron and the Daily Telegraph think we should subsidise rural Post Offices to keep them open, even though 800 of them get fewer than 16 customers per week. It's funny how people who preach about competitiveness forget about their principles when it is their voters or their readers that would benefit from ignoring economics.

The customers of the shops in which most of these Post Offices are located are very much afraid of the shops closing, understandably, given that they may often be the only local shopping facility, and their closure might mean a long journey for even the most basic of household items. But the shops themselves are often profitable, it is only the Post Office desk that is losing money. Is it beyond the wit of man to close the desk but keep the shop open? If the desk is losing money, this will actually make the shop a more attractive commercial proposition.

For posting of regular letters, postboxes will still be available. For posting of parcels, there are many delivery services that will collect from home. One of the reasons that remote Post Office desks are no longer viable is that so many services have been removed from the responsibility of the Post Office, such as those formerly provided for the DWP, DVLA and BBC. There isn't much for Post Office desks to do, which is why they get so few customers, and why they are losing money. So why keep them open, when what people really want is the shop that goes with them? Why not let the management of the Post Office make rational business decisions, rather than asking people to pay to maintain the availability of services that almost no one uses?

The Daily Telegraph organised a petition to keep the Post Offices open. "Four million people can't be wrong", they trumpeted, as they handed the petition to Downing Street. Oh really? A lot more than four million people voted for Labour in the last 3 elections, and I seem to remember the Telegraph was convinced they were all wrong. And if four million people think we should keep them open, does that mean 56 million people think we should let them close? And are they nineteen times more right than the 4 million? What a load of cobblers.

Petitions are a feeble way of judging the rights and wrongs of a case, or even of judging public sentiment. A signature costs nothing. People are not being asked to actually pay for the thing they think the government should subsidise. The signature-gatherers should have to obtain a pledge of personal financial support to keep the desks open, to go with the signature. If signing a petition cost more than ink, we'd find out how much people really care about remote Post Offices.

But hang on, we don't need to. Judged by people's dollar votes, we already know what people think. And the answer is, they don't find the services so essential that they use them every day, or even every week. But that's because they have to pay for them. As Samuel Goldwyn might have said, a petition isn't worth the paper it's printed on.