The RSA and Post Office Ltd. are soon to publish a report on the future role that Post Offices could play in catalysing change in local areas. Below is a summary of the discussions we had at a series of roundtables during the 2013 party conferences.
Party conferences are well known for their unveiling of grand policies. For the Lib Dems, it was free school meals. For Labour, it was a freeze in energy prices. And for the Conservatives – well, we’ll have to wait a few more days to find out what they have in store. In any case we can expect something that will grab the headlines.
What party conferences aren’t so well known for, however, is discussing the nitty gritty of policies and how it is they will be implemented on the ground. Ed Miliband spoke of the importance of doing more for small businesses, yet it is unclear how the government and its agencies are to reach out to entrepreneurs – particularly the 500,000 new microbusinesses that have emerged since the recession. Likewise, Nick Clegg and his party have raised the idea of a green bank, but there is little understanding of how residents and businesses will interact with such an institution in practice.
These gaps appear to indicate the need for a certain type of local infrastructure that can bridge the centre with the local, orchestrating new policies on the ground and turning them into something tangible for everyday people. Such ‘community anchors’ – if we can call them that – might be able to ‘deliver’ new services themselves, but more importantly they should provide the shared space for citizens, public services, businesses and others to come together and create value. So far, so theoretical – the important question is what does this look like in practice and who is going to fulfil this role?
Enter the Post Office. The RSA’s party conference roundtables with the Post Office Ltd. this year explored the potential for branches to transform themselves into key catalysts of change in their local area, taking on some of the functions previously owned by a now retrenched state. While our conversations acknowledged the priceless contribution that the Post Office network already makes to communities, there was a sense it could do a great deal more with its defining assets. Namely, the trust that people put into it, the presence it has across the country – over 90 per cent of people live within a mile of the Post Office – and the continuity it enjoys, in that Post Office branch numbers are set to remain stable for the foreseeable future.
With such assets at their disposal, Post Offices would appear to have all the ingredients in place to become these so-called community anchors. But what will they actually do? While it all depends to some extent on the specific needs of a given area, there were several broad public policy debates that our roundtable participants touched upon. Those at the Liberal Democrat event talked of Post Offices as being future gateways of business support, for example by signposting entrepreneurs to relevant information and advice, helping them to deal with new real-time reporting procedures, or raising awareness of schemes such as StartUp Loans.
On the Labour side, the discussion tilted more towards the role that Post Offices could play in addressing emerging social challenges, such as those associated with poor access to finance. One idea raised was to link Post Offices with credit unions and CDFIs, enabling the latter to raise their profile and reach out to more individuals at risk of predatory loan sharks. It was also suggested that Post Offices could help residents in their area make the transition to the Universal Credit system, not least by helping them complete the new mandatory online forms. Other themes and policy areas touched upon were regional banking, the localism agenda, social care, and cities and local economic growth.
No one, however, was under the illusion that any of this is possible without a fundamental shift in the way that Post Offices are run. Impediments highlighted at the roundtables include the availability of space within branches, the financial viability of providing or hosting new services – many Subpostmasters are already under severe financial pressures – and the level of demand that exists among people for a wholly different kind of Post Office.
Yet there was also a sense that the assets of Post Offices are simply too valuable to be left untapped. Nor was it hard to recognise how Post Offices themselves could benefit from enhancing their community role. Indeed, we know from our own research with Subpostmasters that there is often a strong business case for ‘going the extra mile’ for residents and businesses, not least in terms of the footfall it can generate. As the adage goes, what is good for society is also good for business – and that no doubt includes Post Offices.
So in years to come, after the dust has long settled, don’t be surprised to see at your local Post Office the remnants of those policies that echoed throughout the party conference season of 2013.
Benedict Dellot is Senior Researcher within the RSA's Enterprise Team. Follow him @BenedictDel