We are fast approaching a time when massive tracts of this fine country of ours (greenfield, brownfield, urban, rural) will be bank-free zones.
Villages and towns stripped of their last bank. Goodbye pub, goodbye convenience store and now goodbye bank. Yes, ultimately goodbye community.
Last week’s disappointing report from the Competition and Markets Authority on how to breathe fire into the static current account market will do little to arrest this decline in the bank branch. Its authors seem besotted with the digital age, prattling on about a future dominated by digital banking and open competition. It’s as if the bank branch was already a thing of the past.
Over the years, I’ve given over hectares of editorial space to the devastating impact on communities when the last bank in town is no more. I’ve travelled the length and breadth of the country to speak to those affected. Has it made a blind bit of difference? Sadly, no.
Despite managing to irritate the swathe of bank officials responsible for wielding the axes, the big banks have not been for turning. They’ve closed their ears and merrily axed away like furious foresters drinking copious amounts of Red Bull. Chop, chop, chop – and to hell with the customer.
My campaigning – and that of numerous charities – did at one stage persuade some of the big banks to agree to keep some of their last branches in town open. But those agreements have long since been ripped up.
The assault on the bank branch network is now ferocious. Post-2008 financial crisis, our (partly) State-owned banks can get away with literally anything on the cost cutting front if it ultimately restores their businesses to good health and delivers shareholders the dividends they crave (and government a profitable exit strategy). So, it’s goodbye branches and let’s leave the bankers’ bonuses untouched.
Last year, some 681 bank branches vanished from our high streets, triple the number for 2013. With summer not even over, the banks have already felled (or marked with a red cross) more branches than they did last year. Carnage on a scale never seen before.
For years, a charming former banker, Derek French, railed against these closures. Supported by a number of charities and associations representing both the elderly and small businesses (those particularly dependent on local branches), he set up the Campaign for Community Banking Services.
The campaign’s objective was eminently sensible: to crack banking heads together so that instead of depriving communities of high street banking services, they would create a ‘shared’ branch available to all customers without penalty. Branch costs would be shared and communities would be left with a bank. A sure fire winner. Sadly, the banks refused to play ball, stating they couldn’t possibly contemplate such a collaboration on commercial grounds.
French, understandably, has run out of energy. He has given up collating data on branch closures, leaving the likes of Age UK, the Federation of Small Businesses and Which? to wave the flag for those most disadvantaged. Indeed, the campaign’s website will soon be taken down so as to avoid giving false encouragement to those communities desperate to save branches destined for closure. How ironic is that?
The big banks have long argued that as banking habits are changing the need for branches is becoming redundant. More people are banking online and using fancy new banking apps. They claim that general branch usage is in decline, although I rarely witness anything but queues when I wander into a bank – whether it’s up in the Lakes when on holiday or in London’s swanky Kensington (Barclays’ branch normally resembles a heaving mass).
Are we opting to go online rather than go into a branch? Or are we being left with no choice but to enter the online banking world where fraud is rife and victims are only refunded if they can walk over hot coals to prove they were blameless for the fraud being committed?
I think it’s a bit of both. We do live in a digital world where more and more people, especially the young, are happy to bank online but it will always be in the banks’ financial interests to push us all towards the web.
I am happy to say there is a handful of banks and building societies – the likes of customer-focused Metro and Nationwide – who are committed to preserving the human touch by maintaining a network of vibrant branches. But they are the exception.
The fact remains that there will be hundreds of communities whose Christmas present will not be a good one when Santa comes clambering down their chimneys. Just an axe for their last branch in town.
Community cohesion, community integration (mantras of the previous coalition government)? Forget it. Our communities are being dismantled bit by bit and the big bad banks are playing a large part. Fancy that.
Jeff Prestridge is Personal Finance Editor of The Mail on Sunday