Is it the last Christmas post for a state-owned Royal Mail?

These are uncertain times for Britain's postal service, with no one willing to predict what the future holds

It's shortly after 9.30am in the small town of Earby in Lancashire, tucked just south of the Yorkshire Dales national park, and Laura Craig is well into her daily round. The local postwoman strides up garden paths past inflatable Santas and tinsel wreaths to empty the first load of the day from her oversized bag.

They've had all sorts of weather here: Monday was sodden, while last Friday the pavements were so icy "people were coming off the buses and crawling to their doors", according to one local resident. But today is a glorious, chill morning, complete with dazzling sunrise and small birds chirruping in competition with the yapping dogs that greet Craig's approach in every fourth or fifth house.

It has, needless to say, been a busy day. All leave is cancelled in December in Barnoldswick delivery office, where Craig, 27, prepared her walk earlier, sorting letters, parcels and the extra crop of Christmas cards into street order and bundling them together for the six or so loops of streets that make up her daily round. Tuesday mornings are usually easy, compared with Wednesdays. But with the online shopping ordered at the weekend working its way through the system, and the extra seasonal orders, Craig and her colleagues are braced for a scramble in the final few delivery days before Christmas.

It's as much a festive tradition as bread sauce and hangovers, and one being repeated in every community in the country as Royal Mail seeks to clear sorting offices of the millions of items of post that flood the network each December. But however cheery each greeting – "Y'all right, Laura?" shouts one elderly woman as she waits for her dog to defecate in a patch of soggy grass next to Tyseley Grove – these are uncertain times for Britain's postal service, with no one willing to predict what the future holds for the nation's much-loved red delivery vans.

Though the postal service has shrugged off repeated warnings, it is unarguable that the social media generation sends fewer letters and cards than the one before. The predicted 800m cards the service will handle this year is a 20% decrease on 2005. The effect on the Christmas post of a punishing price rise earlier this year, when the cost of first-class stamps rose from 46p to 60p and second class from 36p to 50p, has yet to be measured, but a survey for Saga found that more than half of the over-50s planned to send fewer cards.

And yet, says Darren Banks, the collection and delivery sector manager for the BB postcode area, into which Barnoldswick falls: "I have been 27 years with Royal Mail, and every time we get a new machine or a new system we have thought it was the decline of the business, and it wasn't. More people are now sending emails and text messages, so you would think post was dead, but it's just so easy to order online, and we're here to fulfil that."

Half the service's revenue now comes from delivering parcels, a boom sector, which along with the price rises has been thanked for profits rising from £12m to £144m in the six months to September. No one is in doubt about what that is likely to mean. In April, Royal Mail formally separated from Post Office Ltd, which oversees the 12,000 post office branches across the country. While Post Office Ltd will almost certainly remain in state hands, privatisation of Royal Mail is widely held to be imminent, perhaps as early as autumn 2013, meaning this could be the last time Craig and her 159,000 colleagues deliver the Christmas post on behalf of a state-owned service.

"We don't talk about it," says Craig, who became a postie five years ago. "Everybody knows it's going to happen. But I think people are just trying to concentrate on getting on with the delivery side of things." Will it make a difference? "Depends who buys us."

There may be bumpy times ahead, with Royal Mail and the Communication Workers Union (CWU), which represents postal workers, complaining to Ofcom that competition in the sector threatens the principle of a universal service.

At least the customers seem happy. The Christmas tips have started. Craig will occasionally be thrust a few pounds and told to buy herself a drink, but more often it's chocolate or biscuits. "I feel a bit uncomfortable taking it, but it's nice to be appreciated," she says, with a grin. She'll have walked 11 miles, up driveways and down cul de sacs, before she's done.

• This article was amended on 19 December 2012 to correct the cost of first-class stamps before this year's price rise. It was further amended on 21 December 2012 to correct an editing error that led to it saying "While Royal Mail will almost certainly remain in state hands, privatisation is widely held to be imminent".


Esther Addley

The GuardianTramp

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