Home deliveries in rural areas come under threat; REVIEW OF ROYAL MAIL MAY ALSO LEAD TO A pounds 1 FIRST-CLASS STAMP.
MAJOR concerns have been expressed about the future of postal services in Wales amid fears that home deliveries in rural areas could be cut while the price of stamps rises steeply.
Two reviews being carried out by Ofcom, which took over as regulator for the postal industry in October, have alarmed Welsh politicians.
One consultation exercise, due to be completed in the New Year, could result in the Royal Mail raising the price of a first class stamp to pounds 1. Another consultation, planned for next spring, will look at "user needs".
A briefing given by Ofcom to Welsh journalists suggested that one potential outcome in some rural areas could involve delivering mail not to people's homes but to a central point in a village.
Last night Ofcom insisted it remained committed to the "universal service obligation" under which letters have to be delivered to addresses six days a week.
But the Postal Services Act passed this year makes it clear that the obligation could be changed so that letters were delivered "to such identifiable points for the delivery of postal packets as Ofcom may approve".
Last night Labour's Shadow Welsh Secretary Peter Hain said a "terrible regulatory system" currently allowed the Royal Mail's commercial rivals to "cream off the lucrative profit-making traffic".
He said: "The Royal Mail alone has the universal service obligation to deliver anywhere in Wales at the same price."
Warning that the service is now in danger, he said: "I think its future is in jeopardy and the future of letters delivered anywhere at the same price throughout Britain and Wales is under serious threat."
Predicting that the cost of stamps may have to go up to ensure deliveries to all parts of Wales are maintained, he said: "It could well result in price increases because the Royal Mail is losing money hand over fist."
Internet use is rising but this will never be a substitute for a universal postal service, he argued, saying: "There has been a huge increase in broadband take-up which has doubled over the last few years. People e-mail rather than send a letter.
"That's fine. That's part of modernisation and technological change.
"But there are huge numbers of pensioners and others on fixed incomes who are never going to go online. To be able to post a letter or a birthday card or a bill or place an order through the post is absolutely essential.
"This is not an optional service. It's an essential service."
He continued: "A good letter service is part of a civilised society and that should be the case for everybody.
You shouldn't be penalised by where you live, [what] you can afford and whether you have the capability to go online."
Jonathan Edwards, the Plaid Cymru MP for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr, said: "This is an extremely worrying and damaging possibility.
"The Royal Mail plays a vital role in social cohesion and people being able to connect. Scrapping the daily delivery would cause enormous problems in rural areas like North Carmarthenshire. If you haven't got a car and live in Cwmdu in the Towy Valley, how are you supposed to make regular trips to Carmarthen to pick up your mail? Do you go down once a month and come back with a sack? "From an economic development point of view it would be disastrous. No business will want to be located in a community if it doesn't have a guaranteed daily postal service."
Mark Williams, the Liberal Democrat MP for Ceredigion, said: "How can central delivery points for mail operate in scattered sparsely populated areas like Ceredigion? "The notion of easily accessible hubs is one which many of my constituents will not be able to identify with, and will seriously inconvenience many small businesses, the elderly, and other vulnerable groups.
"Rural isolation is a reality. Inadequate broadband, inadequate public transport, now compounded by the prospect of a diminished postal service - that is, and will be the reality for much of rural Wales if the universal service delivery obligation disappears.
"A 'user-needs consultation' by Ofcom is an apt title. The postal users of rural Wales really do need the security of a universal service obligation. I would encourage everyone with concerns to respond to the Ofcom consultation when it is launched."
Glyn Davies, the Conservative MP for Montgomeryshire, said: "I will do what I can to retain the universal service provision for as long as possible. I see it as a crucial part of my mission to fight for the retention of public services in rural areas.
"At some time in the future people will stop sending letters and there will no longer be the need for a daily delivery, but we're a long way off from that at the moment."
Rebecca Thomas, postal specialist at Consumer Focus Wales, said: "A survey by Consumer Focus Wales last year showed that nine out of 10 service users are broadly satisfied with the delivery service they receive at present - it seems unlikely to me that any sweeping changes to the way post is delivered would win public approval."
Royal Mail spokesman Heulyn Gwyn Davies said: "Royal Mail delivers to 29 million individual addresses in both rural and urban areas across the UK. We are not aware of any proposals to change that."
A spokesman for Ofcom said: "We have absolutely no plans to remove rural postal services."
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* Peter Hain MP has criticised the proposals by the Royal Mail * The round between Claerwen Dam and Nantybeddau near Rhayader, is among the most challenging postal routes in the UK and could be at risk