Union saves remote Scottish Highland mail service

Postal, Post Office (PO)

Residents of one of the UK’s smallest and most remote communities have retained their post office, SPDO and their only shop – thanks to a successful campaign led by the CWU…

“It’s so important locally that we can carry on providing these services and it’s such a relief that they’ve been saved,” says Rhona Graham, who has run Skerray Community Shop for the past 11 years, following in the footsteps of her mother, who had taken on the store previously.

As well as providing the only local retail service for the village – located right on Scotland’s northern coast – the shop also houses a post office counter and a scale payment delivery office (SPDO), a local Royal Mail hub from which Paul Blackman delivers to residents.

“I’m delighted I can keep on working from Skerray,” comments Paul, who has worked this delivery for 27 years. “The union has done a superb job working with Royal Mail to persuade them to change their minds on this.”

It was last November when the shocking news came through to Rhona and Paul that notice of closure had been served and when Paul – a CWU Highland Amal Branch member – took the matter up with his union rep at Thurso Delivery Office, it transpired that no prior consultation had taken place.

The area delivery rep (ADR) for Highland Amal Branch Lesley-Anne MacAskill tells CWU News: “Mark MacKenzie, the CWU rep at Thurso, passed the news onto me and it was clear that the business had failed to follow the correct consultation process on this.”

There is an agreed process by which the business must notify and then fully consult with the union when scoping any possible relocation or closures within the SPDO estate. This is co-ordinated by the SPDO Project, with national leads from both Royal Mail and the CWU, she explains.

“Because of the rural nature of much of our branch, we have a high number of SPDOs and, as such, we are very familiar with the SPDO Project and procedures,” the ADR points out, adding that she took the issue up with the CWU’s SPDO national lead Mike Newport and registered a formal ‘flashpoint’ disagreement in accordance with the company’s IR framework.

After some initial confusion from the business, Royal Mail conceded that there had been a procedural failure on their side and serious talks began in January, although initially, the CWU was told that, despite the company’s failure to follow appropriate procedures, the mail operation would still be ending at Skerray.

“That would’ve been terrible for the community,” says Paul. “Local people would’ve had to go all the way to Thurso to pick up any undelivered parcels – about 40 miles.”

Rhona tells CWU News that losing the SPDO hub would have had even further consequences for Skerray, because “without the mailwork, the post office counter would’ve become unsustainable and the shop would not be able to stay in business either.

“It’s the only shop here, so the community would have no local facilities at all. Also, there’s no public transport and our elderly residents would have been badly affected in particular,” she adds.

It was these arguments – the public service responsibility and social impact of the flawed relocation plans – that the ADR used in the ongoing discussions with Royal Mail and, eventually, a common-sense solution was reached.

Last week, the served notice was retracted, the SPDO retained and, as a consequence, the post office counter and shop were saved.

“It was fantastic to get this result,” says Lesley-Anne. “A huge win, even if on a small scale, for Paul and Rhona as well as the people of Skerray.”

Speaking from her shop, Rhona praised the union’s successful efforts and said: “The CWU representatives working together have really fought our corner and we really appreciate it – I’d like to find out about joining as a postmistress if I’m eligible.”

Paul, who moved here from Wiltshire 30 years ago and married a local woman, says: “It’s a lovely way of life up here and this decision was absolutely the right thing to do – big thanks to our union for doing a great job.”