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Remember Consignia? No?

Who does? It was one of those great failures of judgement and a hangover from the days when rebranding was seen as an answer to, rather than an evasion of, a company's structural problems. In this instance, instead of investing in the provision of a better service to its customers, the Post Office decided to spend £500,000 reinventing itself so that customers wouldn't recognise that it was rubbish.

The Postal Services Act in 2000 made all this possible.

A New-Labourite flurry of deregulation - going where Thatcherite hardliners feared to tread - set out the legal basis for competition within the postal services industry.

Within a couple of years, Consignia was consigned to the dustbin of history (spending a further £1 million and renaming itself the Royal Mail Group) but a separate independent organisation, Postcomm (the Postal Services Commission), was set up to oversee the changes resulting from the Act. The final phase begins on 1 January 2006.

Essentially, 30 per cent of the mail industry has already been deregulated but the floodgates have not exactly opened to independent mail carriers. At present, new franchises have been offered only for bulk carriage of 4,000 letters or more. These marginal-interest mail licences were offered to companies like Document Exchange (itself rebranded as DX), with shortterm licences awarded to Dutch group TNG and others, but in total these postal carriers have taken just 0.3 per cent of the 'normal' letter market and 13 per cent of the parcel market.

Phased deregulation has safeguarded the Royal Mail's effective monopoly. But improving its financial fortunes has come at a cost, and it has just rejigged parcel costs over and above the increases of four months ago.

When complete deregulation kicks in, in four months' time, businesses might want to cast an eye around to see whether there are better deals available. Germany's Deutsche Post (known here as DHL) is expressing an interest in taking market share.

Regardless of the everincreasing preference for email and document sharing, DX says that a typical architectural practice still sends out about 12,000 pieces of mail, costing approximately £3,500, every year. Nominal costs in the grand scheme of things but your accountant might be able to save you enough to pay for a slap-up meal for your staff every month.

According to DX's assessment of the potential market, a 600g A4 envelope (competition for mail less than 100g is only permissible after 31 December 2005) sent overnight will cost 28p with DX, compared with £2.15 for First Class post and £4.25 for Royal Mail Special Delivery. In keeping with the spirit of deregulatory competition, the Royal Mail is already cutting prices accordingly.

More than 70 per cent of UK councils are 'members' of DX's service. It is a bit of a palaver signing up - and its deposit locations are thin on the ground - but it does promise pre-9am delivery, which might turn the head of a practice wanting to deliver a planning application to deadline.

Reports that there will be four or five different size and shaped pillar boxes on street corners (not to be confused with containers for white, brown and green glass, newspapers and clothing) may be exaggerated. However, just as with mobile phone technology, architects may soon have to start developing a nerdy interest in the minutiae of the location, weight and timing of their communications systems to get the most cost-efficient postal service.

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