Sunday, December 7, 2014

The Last Post



On my drive home from work a few times recently, I became involved in a Mexican stand-off with a large TNT delivery truck in the narrow country lanes around the village of Bodle Street Green. With barely enough room for two cars to pass each other, this nine ton truck caused the closest you could ever get to gridlock on the road from Rushlake Green. Cursing modern satellite navigation technology for sending inappropriate vehicles along the most direct route, I thought no more about it until a later evening when I saw the TNT truck parked up at the top of Sandhill Lane. As I passed, I saw that the driver was emptying the Royal Mail post box and carrying out the last collection of the day.

Since Royal Mail was privatised on the cheap in 2013, by former Labour councillor and now coalition Liberal Democrat Business Secretary, Vince Cable, most of us will not have noticed too much change - except that the profit made by Royal Mail does not now benefit us as taxpayers but benefits anonymous shareholders instead (when I say “benefit”, this is a moot point: it was announced in November that profits have fallen 21% in the last six months).

What I was seeing on my journey home was one of the less visible signs of privatisation: parts of the service being sub-contracted out. But we will probably all be seeing more visible signs – or not – soon, as Royal Mail has warned that daily postal deliveries may not be sustainable in the face of competition from other private companies. Curiously, the private company Royal Mail says it is most threatened by is Whistl (sic), the mono-vowelled re-branding of TNT Post UK, a wholly owned subsidiary of PostNL, operators of the Dutch postal service. TNT has long been a friend of the privatisers and most famously drove their trucks through the Wapping picket lines to distribute Murdoch’s newspapers during the 1986 strike.

I am sure there is a perfectly good reason why Royal Mail’s biggest competitors were carrying out postal collections from rural post boxes on its behalf, but it seems a little strange to me. However, this is not the strangest thing about it: I was used to seeing postmen in their red-liveried Royal Mail vans, carrying out the last collection of the day from a string of post boxes attached to telegraph poles, embedded in hedgerows or, in one case, part of a garden wall – a very British image. And what strikes me as odd is that the forces of conservatism, the very people I would expect to uphold this idyllic scene, are prepared to forego it in pursuit of profit. However, this is all irrelevant now: despite the government’s assurances that privatisation would not affect the service, late afternoon collections from post boxes in my area have ended; if you want to catch the last post, you have got to get down to the post office.

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