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Signed, sealed and delivered
Local Government Chronicle – 16 October 2008

The first council-run post office has opened in Essex, proving that standing up for the rights of communities can make a difference. Mark Smulian dons his postman's hat

It gives a new meaning to the phrase 'one stop shop'. At Praful Chavda's convenience store you can buy groceries, wine, bread, stationery, stamps, report antisocial behaviour to the police, order services from Essex CC and consult on fire safety.

His shop is the first in Essex's 1.5m post office reopening programme. The council launched this as a response to public outrage over the effect on isolated communities and individuals of the government's branch closure programme - the euphemistically named 'network change'. The authority has since developed a reopening model with the Post Office for other councils to use.

Public anger focused on remote villages that stood to lose their only shop if the associated post office closed, and that is where Essex will concentrate its efforts. But having concluded tortuous talks with the Post Office over its reopening model this summer, the county needed a quick win to demonstrate to other local authorities that it works. Its first council-supported post office is at Roding Valley, a slice of inter-wars suburbia served by an extremity of the London Underground and only some 100 metres from the boundary with Redbridge LBC.

Mr Chavda's post office was, as Essex's area co-ordinator John Symonds puts it, "a relatively easy one to do". At the rear of the large convenience store, there is a post office counter and a gleaming machine that is Essex's first in-store community information point.

Leader Lord Hanningfield (Con) argues that reopening branches is not just a matter of community wellbeing. It is also about saving money long-term, since the presence of a post office gives elderly people "a reason to go out, somewhere to walk to", and so helps to keep them active and out of the county's care budget.

Lawyers, however, advised that these simple objectives contained complex legal pitfalls. But after negotiating the thickets of postal regulation, council wellbeing powers, competition law and EU rules on state aid to businesses, Essex now believes it has a workable model. Under this, Essex contracts with Mr Chavda and pays him the costs of running the post office. He, in turn, contracts with the Post Office to buy its stamps and services.

This cumbersome arrangement arose because lawyers said Essex could not pay public money direct to the Post Office under state aid rules. Nor could it pay money to concerns such as Tesco and the Co-op, which has prevented the reopening of post offices that were inside supermarkets. Essex hopes to reopen 16 of its 32 doomed post offices. The rest include those which cannot open under these rules and ones where the Post Office judges that reopening might endanger the viability of its existing branches.

Mr Chavda says: "I've been here 16 years and have run a post office in the shop for 12 years. It was a shock when I was told the post office would have to close.

I objected and people signed petitions - we had a lot of community support. Once the post office closed in February the shop kept going, but business was down considerably."

The deal with the council allows Essex to install its information point and a rack of leaflets in the shop. This so far offers a basic link to the council's website and also carries information on the ambulance, police and fire services.

Mr Symons says: "This is something relatively simple to implement quickly, and soon it should be possible to do more complex things like order a disabled parking badge, for which you would otherwise have to go to all the way to Epping. It is useful for residents who cannot get to a council office to have an information point locally, and elderly users in particular may not have the internet at home or be able to travel easily."

He sees the reopening programme as being of most value in rural areas "not just for older people, but also for young parents stuck at home in isolated places". But, he says, Roding Valley was chosen because "we needed to get a couple open quickly to give confidence to this programme and show it worked".

The 1.5m is available over three years. Mr Symons says: "After that we hope these operations will have become viable in their own right." This might sound a forlorn hope given the Post Office closed the branches in the first place because it deemed them unviable. The answer, Lord Hanningfield explains, lies in how one calculates a branch's costs.

"The Post Office was eventually helpful, but has its own bureaucracy and seemed to have no idea of how individual branches were doing because they just have this national overhead that they spread around," he says.

Both shopkeepers and the council should benefit from the presence of the community information points and their ability to act as a community hub. For example, a police community support officer holds a weekly surgery in Mr Chavda's shop, where residents can report concerns.

Mr Symons says: "I went into police headquarters just as a courtesy to say we would be putting in a link to their website, and they were really enthusiastic about what we are doing, and set up the surgery. The primary care trust is another partner we hope to see involved. There is a lot of potential."

Essex's next two reopenings are likely to be at Great Hallingbury, a small village, and in Clacton, a coastal retirement resort. Lord Hanningfield also expects to replace some post offices with services in libraries and community centres, staffed either by community volunteers or as outstations of other post offices.

The Post Office, protective of its brand, will inspect reopened branches, whether run by shopkeepers or volunteers, to ensure they operate correctly and deliver the required service standards, says Graham Simmons, its field change adviser, who worked with Essex on Roding Valley.

He says: "We are happy to talk to community groups, local authorities or even individuals about reinstatement of branches. It has to be cost neutral to us and meet our standards of service and must not have an adverse affect on another post office."

It is all worthwhile, but does Lord Hanningfield really expect savings from this programme?

"We spend a lot of money on preventative work among elderly people, quite apart from the 500m we spend on care, and what we spend on post offices is peanuts compared with that," he says. "Its value is that it gives elderly people somewhere to walk to even if they just want a stamp. It gets them out of the house and one of the great problems with elderly people is that they can just vegetate."

The programme aims to both provide vital community services and save money on the burgeoning adult social care budget. If it succeeds, postal services could become a normal part of councils' work.