Communities braced for postal strike

After voting overwhelmingly for a national strike, postal workers are set to down their mailbags.Union leaders meet today to decide the timing of the first national stoppage since 2007.

After voting overwhelmingly for a national strike, postal workers are set to down their mailbags.

Union leaders meet today to decide the timing of the first national stoppage since 2007.

A week tomorrow - Tuesday, October 20 - is the earliest the required seven-day legal notice could be given.

Whether they strike while the iron is hot, or maximise disruption by walking out closer to Christmas, some of the biggest casualties will be rural communities and the businesses which operate in

them.

For the red van pulling up outside is a lifeline which brings money or a means of supplying customers for almost all of them.

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Whether the Communication Workers Union opts for a 24- or 48-hour strike or rolling stoppages, the post will not revert to whatever passes for normal the following day.

Wildcat strikes in different parts of the country over the summer - including King's Lynn and Peterborough - have already built up a backlog estimated at six million items in London alone.

Last time Pat and his mates walked out, the London Chamber of Commerce reckoned it cost firms in the capital alone �300m.

People in rural areas depend more on the postal service even more than their urban counterparts. Many of us now shop online for everyday essentials as well as luxuries - all of which are delivered in the post.

Some small businesses - especially the new generation of online retailers, who depend on the post to fulfil orders - fear the strike will devastate them.

Norfolk Herbs at Dillingham, near Dereham, is one of many specialist nurseries which send perishable plants through the post. “They're live plants, if they don't get there in two days we might as well throw them away,” a spokesman said.

Even the tourism sector - more buoyant than some after Staycation Summer - is going to suffer.

“It's an inconvenience,” said John Pugh, who runs a B&B and holiday cottage business near North Walsham. “It will affect things like deposits, confirmation letters, that kind of thing when people are booking up for Christmas.

“Fifty per cent of the market, people staying in guest houses, B&Bs and hotels send payment by cheque, there are confirmation letters as well.

“The bigger hotels have means of electronically transferring money, but the smaller end still rely on cheques.”

Chris Allhusen, who farms at Bradenham and is Norfolk chairman of the Country Land and Business Association (CLA), said: “Our bigger bills are paid via BACS but our smaller suppliers, like the chap who cleans the windows, are paid by cheque so it's definitely going to affect smaller businesses.”

Government advice includes paying bills at banks - which aren't exactly common in rural Norfolk - and reporting overflowing postboxes, though at present it is not clear who might actually come and empty them.

You can renew your tax disc at a post office - if you're lucky enough to live near one which is still open and you've got time to queue. Other vital bits of paper ranging from insurance cover notes to driving licences and vehicle documents still have to come via the post.

Then there are credit card statements, store cards and all your other flexible friends - which soon turn nasty when you don't pay up on time. Last but potentially even more expensive, a postal strike close to one of the deadlines for filing some part or other of your tax return could leave many facing a �100 fine.

Some red tape can be done online - though be prepared for a long wait if you're thinking about downloading farm returns and filling them in at your PC rather than via the post, with rural Norfolk's notoriously poor broadband.

Royal Mail has appealed for the CWU to call off the strike, claiming change is the only way to deal with a 10pc drop in the volume of letters, with each percentage point costing it �70m.

Bosses want workers to cover for holidays and sickness, and for delivery and sorting staff to swap roles when needed. But there are also plans for more part-time employees and new sorting technology which will jeopardise many of their jobs.

Workers accuse management of back-tracking on agreements made after the last national stoppage. Some claim they are being expected to carry increasingly heavy loads and walk more quickly on their rounds. Others say the Royal Mail is better at dishing out work than it is bonuses.

“Why have I become a Mail Militant,” one wrote in The Guardian. “Consider the fact that delivery office managers will get �8,000 each for making improvements in their offices. Section managers, however, only receive �2,000 each. The postmen who have been ” to help make things work will receive �0.”

Some predict the strike could even sound the last post for the beleaguered Royal Mail, with big customers like online retailer Amazon looking for alternative means of delivery and the Tories rumoured to be drawing up plans to privatise it.

Destructive industrial relations and chanting pickets were the swansong of the collieries and the car plants of the 1970s and 80s, along with the shipyards and the steelworks.

Both businesses and private customers across rural East Anglia just want the post to arrive on time - regardless of who delivers it.

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