BARNSTAPLE businesses are joining forces to fight for a better postal service from the Royal Mail. More than 50 Roundswell-based firms filed a petition to Post Office chairman Allan Leighton following the introduction of later start times for postal workers

BARNSTAPLE businesses are joining forces to fight for a better postal service from the Royal Mail.

More than 50 Roundswell-based firms filed a petition to Post Office chairman Allan Leighton following the introduction of later start times for postal workers in August last year - without response.

Now, the Barnstaple & District Chamber of Commerce is leading a campaign to improve service and delivery times that it says are "severely handicapping" small businesses.

Chamber president Rob Ford said that local businesses had already begun adding their names to a new petition posted on the Chamber website last week.

"The service we currently receive from Royal Mail is unsatisfactory, in terms of both cost and service," Mr Ford told the Gazette.

"The changes in delivery times have had an immediate impact on local businesses. At Roundswell, we used to receive our post between 9am and 9.30am, but since the later starting times, it's usually around 10.30-11.30 and sometimes as late as 2.30pm.

"It's completely unacceptable. The postal service is an essential business tool for many small companies and late delivery has a knock-on effect that disrupts the flow of working day.

"We are under no illusions about changing things overnight," he added.

"Likewise, if people are really satisfied with the Royal Mail, we would like to hear from them."

Mr Ford, director of mobile telecoms firm Zero 7, said that the local business community had also raised concerns about things going missing in the post, and that many firms were already using alternative means of business communication.

"Because of the narrower window between delivery and collection, my own firm has made considerable efforts to send out as much as we can via email - we are even experiencing a return to faxing," he said.

"Businesses on Roundswell are currently investigating the possibility of forming some kind of co-operative - an accumulative collection that will enable us to use an alternative postal service such as TNT.

"We're not blaming the postmen, it's the bureaucracy behind the organisation of how the mail gets out."

Joe Dean, Communication Workers' Union representative for Royal Mail staff in Barnstaple and the surrounding area, told the Gazette that the Royal Mail introduced later starting times because of new European Union 56mph speed restrictions on vehicles weighing 3.5 to 7.5 tonnes.

"Mail now arrives at the depot a lot later than previously and that has had an obvious knock effect to delivery times," he said.

"I used to be out of the depot and delivering mail by 9am. Now, as the post comes in later, I don't usually start delivering until 10-10.30am."

Mr Dean, who took part in Royal Mail strikes last year to highlight what postal workers saw as the erosion of their jobs and pensions, said that Sunday collections stopped at the beginning of the year and that business calls on Roundswell estate had almost doubled from 82 to150 in the last three-and-a-half years.

"The later start times have had an impact on postal workers' family and social lives," he said.

"We are not happy about it but have had to get used to it. Some have found it pretty hard and two or three people had to leave or give up second jobs when the new times came in.

"It's getting to the stage now where we are fed up with what is going on. We have put forward a lot of practical solutions but we are not being listened to."

Royal Mail spokesperson, Jane Thomas, said that because of the EU vehicle directive, mail arrived later at delivery offices, and staff start times had changed from around 5am to around 6am.

She said: "Royal Mail is required by law to comply with this directive and is currently planning how best to implement the changes while maintaining the first class level of service for all customers.

"Customers can be reassured that Royal Mail is working hard to minimise the impact of these changes across the country.

"Royal Mail will continue to make the last delivery by lunchtime in urban areas and mid-afternoon in rural areas."

In a survey published by the British Chamber of Commerce this month, 55.2 per cent of respondents said that they found the Royal Mail to be less reliable than five years ago.

BCC spokesman, Sam Turvey, said the survey highlighted some of the distinct challenges Royal Mail is currently facing.

He said: "Perhaps most noticeable, is the significant move towards paperless billing and increased Internet use. However, many smaller firms are still heavily reliant on Royal Mail for final mile delivery.

"The only way to improve Royal Mail's service and win back lost business, is by pushing ahead with modernisation. Companies want an efficient, value-for-money and reliable service, which Royal Mail must be able to deliver without the fear of more industrial action."

_ To register your views on the service provided by Royal Mail, visit http://www.barnstaplechamber.co.uk/ and follow the link.