When it comes to bank branch closures, there are two schools of thought. One side isn’t bothered, pointing to the ubiquity of online banking and celebrating the fact that technology has, in their opinion, made bank branches obsolete.
The other side – of which I’m a part – laments the loss of local bank branches, not just for the impact on small businesses and individual customers who rely on them but also the devastating effect on the community. I’m with Spectator Money‘s Jeff Prestridge who wrote last year that ‘our communities are being dismantled bit by bit and the big bad banks are playing a large part’. He added: ‘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).’
I echo Jeff’s thoughts. And now I have personal experience to draw on. When I opened a business bank account a couple of years ago, I chose NatWest, largely because there is a branch in my town. I use it regularly. But now I learn that the branch is to be closed permanently later this year. Unsurprisingly, the letter informing me of this decision starts ‘With more of our customers choosing to use telephone, online and mobile banking services than ever before…’
When it did become OK to impose wholesale bank branch closures using the internet as an excuse? In total, 158 Royal Bank of Scotland and NatWest branches are being closed this year. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Over the past two years, 1,046 bank and building society branches have been shut by the country’s major high street players.
Today we learn that Lloyds Bank is to ‘shrink’ hundreds of its branches. These so-called ‘micro branches’ could be staffed by just two members of staff using tablets. So no counter services and a footprint of just 1,000 sq feet.
Lloyds says this is driven by a ‘profound’ change in customer behaviour (NatWest uses the word ‘dramatic’). While I don’t dispute the fact that many people have altered the way they bank, only giving people one option – an automated one – makes a mockery of bank pledges to prioritise customer service. And now that Lloyds is on the brink of returning fully to the private sector (it was announced this morning that the taxpayer stake in the bank has dropped below 2 per cent), I have little hope that its commitment to the man on the street will improve.
Helen Nugent is Online Money Editor of The Spectator