In summer 2009, the only post office in Darnall, an inner-city area of Sheffield, closed suddenly after a dispute between the franchise owner and the Post Office. This meant an estimated 3,500 weekly customers, many of whom did not have their own transport, had to travel outside the area to use post office services.
Local people were so upset by the closure that they started a campaign. Their initial attempts to reopen the old branch failed, but in January 2010 Darnall Forum, a local community development charity, put forward a proposal to open a new post office on its premises. The idea won support in the community and in August 2010 the new post office opened after receiving loans and grants totalling £50,000 from the Key Fund, a social investor, and Sheffield City Council.
After almost five years of trading, Neil Bishop (right), the chief operating officer of the Darnall Forum and Darnall Post Office, says the post office is still doing well. "We have five members of staff and we now have main post office status, which allows us to offer services such as dealing with road tax and passport checks," he says.
But he admits it has been hard work. "It is very difficult to make money by running a post office," he says. "That the previous post office proved not to be commercially viable speaks for itself. The most successful post offices have a strong retail arm and use the post office to pull in customers. We do only some stationery and cards so far, and we've struggled to make retail pay."
The Darnall post office operates much like any other. For example, the layout adheres to post office standards and it doesn't rely on volunteers. But Bishop considers this both a strength and a weakness. "The Post Office is keen to protect its brand, so it's hard to make people aware that this is a charity-run post office run for their benefit," says Bishop. "Getting that message across isn't easy: people think the post office is run by government."
The post office has been set up as a separate trading arm of the Darnall Forum and makes a contribution to the forum's running costs. But it is yet to provide a steady flow of income to support the charity's work. Bishop says: "The post office is pretty much not-for-profit. It's not a quick way to make money."
Many communities, particularly in rural areas, have post offices in village shops or pubs, or have cafes attached to help make them commercially viable. Bishop says there's limited scope to open, say, a cafe on the site to help generate extra income: "The building is just about big enough to hold the post office. To capture people in the queue and persuade them to have a cup of coffee, we'd have to knock a big hole in the wall. It's do-able, but we'd need to stop using the premises for the charity's community work."
But the post office is diversifying in other ways by selling school uniforms. "One of the advantages of selling school uniforms is that people will come in especially to get them," Bishop says.
The charity initially hoped that by taking on the post office it would be able to help more people in the community by supporting them through its training and employment schemes. But recent funding constraints have made this difficult. "Our biggest challenge is that grants and contracts for delivering community work have become thin on the ground," says Bishop. "The post office is chugging along OK, but the attached offer is struggling."
But he says that opening the post office has been the right thing to do for Darnall residents: "A lot of people still live in a cash society. They have savings accounts and pay their bills over the counter. These people aren't using the internet for shopping or banks for credit. For them, this is a vital service."
Locality and the Esmee Fairbairn Foundation have published a free guide for communities that are thinking about taking over post offices.