Bank branch closures: the grim reality

Published by Jeff Prestridge on 28 July 2014.
Last updated on 30 July 2014

Bank

Over the past 20 years, I've visited more bank branches than I care to remember. I've even spent a week or so pursuing mobile banks in the wilds of Aberdeenshire and Cornwall as they've travelled from village to village providing banking services to isolated communities.

My pursuits have earned me the nickname the "bank branch spotter" but probably the "grim reaper" is a more appropriate title because when I turn up at a bank branch it usually only means one thing: it is about to shut and the community is up in arms about the devastation it is going to wreak on their high street.

I report the feelings of residents and local businesses but other than a little local public relations embarrassment for the bank concerned, I don't have a magic wand. Invariably, the bank has its wicked way and the branch closes.

Bank branch closures have become a feature of our dying high streets in recent years. Figures collated by pressure group the Campaign for Community Banking Services indicate that since the beginning of 1990, more than 8,000 bank branches have disappeared from our high streets – nearly halving the network.

And the closures show no signs of slowing. Indeed, some say we are on the cusp of a big ratcheting up of closure programmes among the big banks.

By the time September has been and gone, Barclays will have shut 53 branches this year while HSBC will have shut 46. And further Barclays' closures are expected as it looks to drive costs out of its retail network by automating many of the services currently provided by its excellent cashiers.

Royal Bank of Scotland, owner of NatWest, is currently in the middle of axing 100 branches, 73 of them NatWest. Only Lloyds Bank has relented from shutting branches, a result of a pledge made in February 2012 to keep its branches to around 1,300.That pledge ends in February next year and most banking analysts believe that Lloyds will then take an axe to its network.

The banks' own trade body, the British Bankers' Association (BBA), has also primed the public to expect more closures. In a recent report entitled "It's in your hands", it talks of a "revolution" in personal banking as more customers turn to internet banking and embrace mobile phone apps, contactless cards and text alerts.

Shrinking

Although the BBA says that the branch remains "integral" to banking in the 21st century, it predicts that branch networks will shrink as day-to-day branch usage continues to fall.

I'm no Luddite and welcome innovation in banking services.

I'm also an admirer of the improvements some of the banks have made to their key branches. Indeed, walking into the Barclays branch on Kensington High Street in London (close to where I work) is an absolute joy. I feel loved, the branch is welcoming, and staff can't do enough to help you. Whether this continues post-September – when Barclays replaces cashiers with automated services – remains to be seen, but I dearly hope so.

Yet we simply can't allow the banks to slash and burn their networks, especially in smaller rural communities where a closure often results in the only bank in town disappearing.When that happens - 1,200 communities have lost their last bank since 1990 – people go elsewhere to do their banking and shopping, with the result that local businesses suffer and often shut for good.

One suggestion, put forward by the Campaign for Community Banking Services, is for banks to agree to run shared branches in communities where it's not profitable enough for a bank to run a standalone branch. Shared branches operate successfully in the United States and there's no reason why they couldn't here in the UK.

So why aren't the big UK banks interested in pursuing such a sound idea? It's all to do with competition - they are worried "sharing" may somehow impinge on the integrity of their individual brands.

Such reasoning is crackers. Shared bank branches make great sense - after all 21% of people use a bank branch at least once a week.They should be part of the revolution currently sweeping through personal banking in the UK.

Jeff Prestridge is the personal finance editor of the Mail on Sunday. Email him at columnists@moneywise.co.uk

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