The mystery of Meersbrook’s missing post
‘Someone turned 50 on our street and didn’t get any cards. They couldn’t work out why and thought they were unloved’
By Dan Hayes
“Has anyone had any post recently,” read a message in a Meersbrook WhatsApp group last month. The group serves a small collection of terraced streets together known as the “B Roads” (Burcot, Beeton, Brook, Binfield), nestled into a thin strip of land in between Meersbrook Park and Chesterfield Road.
A few more messages whizzed back and forth on the app, jostling for space between the usual neighbourhood WhatsApp fare — lost cats, washing machines for sale. But after many of the area’s doormats and filing cabinets had been checked and double-checked, the conclusion was inescapable: no one in the area had received any post for over two weeks.
Everyone was affected, but a few residents took it upon themselves to find out what was going on. On a quick tour around the area, Kate Billington, Beth Cooper and Miranda Allen, all of Burcot Road, found birthday cards gone astray, prescription reminders missed, mortgage papers left at the sorting office and important health information undelivered. One local business is being taken to court by the council for non-payment of rates because they didn’t get the letter in time. And another resident had some flowers sent through the post to them — when they finally arrived they were dead. “Someone turned 50 on our street and didn’t get any cards,” says Beth. “They couldn’t work out why and thought they were unloved.”
Perhaps most worryingly, one B Road resident who has recently been diagnosed with a brain tumour only got a letter about an urgent hospital appointment 35 minutes before she was due to be at the clinic. “Weston Park Hospital put a first class stamp on that in the full faith that Royal Mail would do the one job they are supposed to be doing,” says Kate. “I’m concerned about older people and those who don’t use social media. They’ll feel like they have been abandoned.”
Digging deeper, the women soon discovered the problem. One ex-Royal Mail employee told them lots of people at the Woodseats sorting office, which covers the S7 and S8 postcodes, had been off sick, maybe as many as 20. As a result, the remaining delivery staff had had their workloads increased, adding extra bits of other posties’ rounds to their own route of between 10 and 15 miles a day. This has left some delivery staff doing incredibly long rounds of up to 17-and-a-half miles a day, which up and down Sheffield's hills in the recent heat has been challenging to say the least.
“They gave them these extra roads and they couldn't do it,” says Beth. “So our roads’ post round have effectively been decommissioned.” As a result, people who know they are missing something are told to go to the sorting office to pick it up themselves, leading to angry confrontations with Royal Mail staff at the depot. Kate says at no point did Royal Mail tell anyone that they were going to reduce their service due to low staff numbers. “The only reason we knew was because we talk to each other,” she adds. “How is that allowed?”
Since they started their investigation, the B Roaders have been told about problems elsewhere in S7 and S8, but also in other parts of Sheffield as well including Handsworth, Shirecliffe and Park Hill. And it’s not just a local issue. All over the country, customers are reporting post arriving weeks late or not coming at all. In some places this is having worrying knock-on effects. In Brighton, 1,500 postal votes went missing due to problems with the mail. A local candidate for the Green Party lost a council race by less than the number of mislaid ballots.
For Beth, her experience with the postal service in Meersbrook speaks to a wider sense that lots of things we used to take for granted in this country simply don’t work very well anymore, from the railways to the post and the NHS to the buses. “It’s a really vital service that’s been running for 500 years and then some fat cat has come along and ripped it to pieces,” she says. “It’s just another one of those national services that are going to get dropped.” In 2007, Royal Mail's slogan was “Late is as good as never”. This May, the communications watchdog Ofcom announced an investigation into poor performance that could see the firm fined £750 million after more than a quarter of first-class mail was not delivered on time.
At a protest outside the Woodseats sorting office on Thursday morning, Beth and Kate held up a sign which read: “POSTIES WE ♥️ YOU (ROYAL MAIL NOT SO MUCH)”. Sadly, some members of the public have been taking the problems out on their postie or else staff at the depot. “I went in to collect some post and the guy in the depot was physically shaking from people shouting at him,” Beth tells me. “Because Royal Mail haven’t said what is happening, people think the posties are just being crap.” It probably won’t help that Royal Mail are now proposing to reduce the depot opening hours from being open from between four and 10 hours a day from Monday to Saturday to just two hours a day Monday to Friday and four hours on Saturday morning.
“None of it is their fault,” adds Kate, motioning to the sorting office over the road. “It’s bad management.” However, the three women are now worried that because they have kicked up a fuss, their situation will be sorted out at the expense of another part of the city. “In Meersbrook it’ll get sorted out because we’re all noisy buggers,” she tells me. “But it will just move to a different area where they think they can get away with it.”
So what do the posties think about it? “We can’t say much as we have been threatened with disciplinary action if we speak to the press,” says one of a group of three posties at the protest who come over to say thanks for the support. “It is much appreciated,” he adds. The staff confirm the problem the three women have discovered: lots of staff at the Woodseats sorting office have taken redundancy recently due to unmanageable workloads and workplace stress. “We’ve lost a lot of really good, dedicated, hard-working people who just can’t take it any more,” says another.
They tell us the terms and conditions they’re now expected to work under “don’t bear any relation” to the job as it was, and that they feel sorry for younger people coming through, who they say have got “no chance”. One postie says he used to be proud to work for the Royal Mail but he’s not any more. “It’s embarrassing,” he adds.
In a statement to The Tribune, a Royal Mail spokesperson apologised to residents who had experienced delays. “Improving our quality of service is our top priority and we are committed to restoring service levels to where our customers expect them to be,” they added.
“At the local office that serves this area and beyond, agency staff were brought in to assist with the level of demand,” the spokesperson said, referring to Meersbrook. “In recent weeks, this has helped improve the service to the point where mail that enters the office is sent out every day.” The spokesperson added that they had similar plans in place across Sheffield and that they “hoped and expected” to see further progress in the coming months.
But for the posties at the sharp end, as staff leave and the ones who remain fall sick in large numbers, those words mean very little. “It’s a case of putting out a fire here, and letting somewhere else burn for a while,” says one. “It’s appalling. People are paying for a service and they are not receiving it. It’s fraud on a mass scale.”
Another postie who meets us says he has worked for the Royal Mail for more than a decade, but that so many people have left recently that the job has become impossible. Many more at the depot want to leave, he adds, which is just going to make a bad situation worse.
“They try to cover it up with saying they’re off with normal sickness,” he tells me. “But normal sickness doesn't last a month, does it? It’s workplace stress.” The depot he works from has recently employed 15 agency staff but it doesn’t seem to have helped, he says. “They’re telling people that everything is fine but the public aren’t stupid,” he tells me. “It clearly isn't.”
Green councillor Marieanne Elliott’s Gleadless Valley ward covers the “B Roads” part of Meersbrook which first noticed the problem. When she was first made aware about the withdrawal of the round, she came to the Woodseats sorting office only for the residents to get a delivery the very next day. But simply taking away someone else’s postman or woman to cover another isn’t a sustainable solution. “They say it is being delivered, it's just on rotation,” she says. “But while that process is going on other posties have now got more work to do in addition to their own rounds. There are loads of staff off sick and leaving. You have to ask yourself why.”
Overworked staff and cuts is something common to many businesses and services at the moment, from the NHS and railways to education and journalism. When Royal Mail was privatised over a decade ago, many people predicted the service would suffer. It would now seem those predictions are now coming to fruition. And not all parts of Sheffield are as resilient and able to cope with postal service cutbacks as others. In leafy, middle-class Meersbrook, residents have taken it upon themselves to do something about it. But not everywhere will be able to spend weeks campaigning for their postal routes to be reinstated.
Councillor Elliott tells me she has been assured that the issue won’t just be local to the B Roads, or even S7 and S8, and that it’s likely that rounds have been removed in each ward in Sheffield. It will probably be happening all over the country. You might not have noticed yet, but check when you last received a letter. You might just find that you don’t have a postal service anymore.
Are you having trouble with your postal service? Are you a postie who has had enough of the job? If so you can get in touch, in confidence, on email@example.com.