Leaders: Stamping down on price rises may have damaged Royal Mail

The price of a First Class letter could yet rise. Picture: Getty
The price of a First Class letter could yet rise. Picture: Getty
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THE Royal Mail has refused to rule out the possibility of the price of a first-class stamp rising to £1. That would be a lot of money to send a letter.

We have, it is clear, come a long way since Sir Rowland Hill’s revolutionary proposal for a universal mail delivery service across the country which led to the introduction of the penny post. We have further still to go.

That much was obvious yesterday after the regulator, Ofcom, removed the cap on what Royal Mail is entitled to charge for first-class stamps, which prompted the company to announce the price would rise to from 46p to 60p. Second-class stamps will rise from 36p to 50p.

The price rises, and the refusal to rule out more of them for first class, prompted predictable, if understandable, outrage from opposition politicians and consumer groups. To put the rise into context, if someone sends 100 Christmas cards, it will cost them £14 more this year than last, a significant sum. There could be more to come, with the price of second-class stamps capped at 55p but rising with inflation.

Combined with the ruling that there would be no upper limit on first-class stamps this feels like a blow to those who still send letters and postcards. But that is just it: it is a problem for those who still use these “old” communication methods. In the age of e-mail, texts and social media, the letter does seem something of an anachronism. Apart perhaps from holiday postcards and Christmas cards, it does not seem to have much of a future.

For this reason, it is possible to have some sympathy for the Royal Mail. It has been exposed to competition over business letters and parcel deliveries, which private firms have shown are profitable, yet it is stuck with the task of delivering letters to all four corners of the United Kingdom for universal prices – a system Hill would still recognise immediately.

The result of the technological revolution and increased competition is this: Royal Mail’s postal volumes have fallen 25 per cent since 2006. They are expected to continue to fall 25 per cent to 40 per cent in the next five years. Last year, Royal Mail’s letters business, from which it gets more than two-thirds of its revenue, lost £120 million. It cannot go on like this.

In justifying its decision yesterday, Ofcom said that Royal Mail has been given the power to set its own first-class stamp prices to make it more commercial and “safeguard” the universal postage service, a reasonable compromise to maintain this objective. The price rise was also softened by the promise to freeze the cost of posting Christmas cards for those on pension credit and employment and support allowance or incapacity benefit, though this may be hard to police.

Overall, however, although none of us likes to see such a steep increase in the price of a service, it is hard to argue against the logic of the regulator’s decision and Royal Mail’s response. The price rises may put off the sounding of Last Post over the postal system.

Sense at last over university admissions

The proposal by the Universities and College Admissions Service (Ucas) under which universities would no longer have made offers to students based on their predicted grades was a classic case of a reform which was logical in theory but impractical in practice. Under the plans – said to be the biggest shake-up of the system for 50 years – students would have sat A-levels earlier and applied to university over the summer, after receiving their results.

For Scotland the flaw in this is obvious: young people here do sit A-levels, but most sit Highers. They sit them earlier and receive their results earlier, a fact which prompted Universities Scotland to warn that the proposals would put Scottish pupils at a “considerable disadvantage”. They would be making hurried decisions about their future in the summer only after receiving their results.

It has taken some serious lobbying by Scottish Universities for Ucas to see sense, but see sense it finally has, issuing a statement today finally admitting that there were “insurmountable difficulties” with the scheme because of differing term times and exam dates throughout the UK. It might be argued that Ucas should have seen these difficulties coming, as the UK is made up of different education systems, but the decision is no less welcome for that.

But there is one reform announced today which makes sense. When the clearing system opens for those who have not been initially successful, applicants will have equal access to all vacancies, with universities able to assess all students before deciding to whom to make offers, rather than operating on a first come, first served basis.

Separating the high art from the merely odd

It MAY be eye-catching. It may be puzzling. But is it art? As visitors to this year’s Edinburgh Art Festival will discover, “art” has escaped the conventional gallery and frame. This year’s Festival will include work by Scottish-born Turner prize winner Susan Philipsz, comprising short sound installations across the city in reaction to the One O’Clock Gun. New work by British sculptor Tamia Kovats comprises 100 specimens of water from rivers across the UK, shown in glass cylinders.

Other artists include Californian Rachel Mayeri, who filmed the reaction of chimpanzees at Edinburgh Zoo to images of human actors, in animatronic masks, mimicking chimp gestures. Then there is work by a young Scottish artist Kevin Harman, who made his name pinching 200 doormats from around Morningside and whose work includes the rearranging of builders’ skips of tangled wood and debris – and holding exhibition “openings” inside the skip.

Original and arresting though all these are, the lay public faces a problem: how can it distinguish between an exhibit and those unusual and bizarre events that help keep daily life above the humdrum? Is it just odd? Or an important artistic statement? Indeed, at this rate, an exhibit labelled Humdrum might yet sweep the prize.