The death of local banking
Local bank branches outside major city centres are an increasingly rare sight. Once they were a hub of community life, but today cost-cutting measures mean more and more are falling under the axe, leaving many people isolated, with no easy access to their finances.
In the last 10 years 2,213 local banks and building societies have been closed in the UK, and the number is increasing month on month with no sign of let-up.
The cuts show no geographic bias either, with branches scrapped in small towns and rural areas across all areas of the UK. Rhayader in Powys, Whitchurch in Hampshire and Southminster in Essex are just three recent examples.
But how is this affecting rural communities?
The answer is that closures can turn a thriving village into a ghost town. When the last bank in a small town or village is shut down, not only are the residents forced to travel further to neighbouring towns for their banking, but shops and local businesses as well as house prices are also likely to take a beating.
Chris Wade, chief executive of Action for Market Towns, has worked with many small towns and villages trying to fight local closures. "Whatever age you are, if you can't get to an ATM or bank, you can't withdraw your money, and it's a hassle to have to travel somewhere else to do this," he says.
Elderly people are particularly vulnerable to the effects of closures. Although there is online and postal banking, many don't own computers and aren't comfortable withdrawing cash from an ATM. Some are unable to travel to a neighbouring town and are forced instead to rely on someone else to get their money for them.
This means they not only lose their independence, but also, without their weekly outing to the bank, the sense of being part of a community. And those who are able to travel face an increased security risk (for example, after withdrawing their pensions) as they have to carry the cash with them.
Although it's elderly people who are the hardest hit by branch closures, there's also a significant impact on the wider local economy. If someone has to travel to another town or village to do their banking or get cash out, it's likely they'll do their shopping there at the same time, so local businesses in the village also suffer.
Hurting local business
A further burden on small businesses is that they have to spend extra time and money travelling further afield to a bank to cash in cheques and large amounts of money.
When HSBC closed its branch in the village of Whitchurch, Hampshire, last year, the local garage suffered badly.
Wayne Bradshaw, 51, an accountant for the Ian Clacy garage, says: "Extra travelling time and costs are eating into our productivity as I now have to drive to another town three times a week to pay in cheques. This takes a big bite out of the day, and is not just a hassle but an unnecessary cost."
Wayne says changing banks would be problematic; ironically, the garage had switched to HSBC five years ago after being assured the bank wouldn't close its local branch. "From the moment it was announced we knew it would go - it didn't matter what the town did, the banks can do what they want," he adds.
Unfortunately, Wayne is right. With no government restrictions, the banks are free to close down local branches wherever and whenever they please and don't legally have to provide customers with any other alternative.
Derek French, director of the Campaign for Community Banking Services (CCBS), which was set up 12 years ago, says that before the 2008 banking crisis local campaigns against branch closures were much more likely to succeed.
"However, the banks now know the government has no interest in stopping them, so they just continue with the closures. The reasoning behind them is purely commercial," he argues.
Adam Zerny, spokesperson for Potton town council in Bedfordshire, adds there is a "real feeling of helplessness" in small towns. In a similar way to the recent wave of Post Office closures, "the government turns a blind eye to those outside the cities, and the feeling and sense of a local community breaks down".
Although all the banks have made branch closures, French says HSBC has been the most aggressive so far, closing 52 branches in the past year. The bank says the closures are because customer habits are changing, and that branches "need to be in areas where they will be used".
When Moneywise spoke to all the other banks, their answers were almost identical: banks are running a business and the branches being shut are classed as no longer "economically sustainable".
Life without the local
The future looks bleak. Banks have no duty to keep branches open and, at present, local campaigns don't seem to be able to force them to do so.
The Independent Banking Commission is consulting on banking competition and behaviour, but there's no guarantee it will change anything. French says that unless the government intervenes, branches will continue to disappear.
In the US, the US Reinvestment Act requires banks to provide a certain degree of service to the local community. Although this is not enforced, it's taken into account when banks ask permission for mergers. French would like to see a similar model introduced in the UK.
So what can you do if your local branch is about to close?
The more people who know about it, the higher the chance of success. Start by writing to your local area manager and include the distance to the nearest bank, travel time, security of cash in transit, absence of cash machine and particular access issues for the elderly.
More details and guidelines can be found on the CCBS website (communitybanking.org.uk).