How Covid has been the nail in the coffin for many local bank branches

The demise of the local bank branch is laid bare in a Money Mail poll today.

Our survey of more than 1,000 customers reveals most of us still rely on our High Street bank but we are being driven away by branch closures and a push towards online banking.

Since 1988, more than 14,000 branches have closed. By next year, there will be just 5,772 left, according to Which?.

Banking crisis: Since 1988, more than 14,000 branches have closed. The Covid pandemic has accelerated closures and by next year, there will be just 5,772 left

Banking crisis: Since 1988, more than 14,000 branches have closed. The Covid pandemic has accelerated closures and by next year, there will be just 5,772 left

Banking crisis: Since 1988, more than 14,000 branches have closed. The Covid pandemic has accelerated closures and by next year, there will be just 5,772 left

Last week, regulator the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) urged banks to rethink plans to shut any more branches during lockdown, over fears more closures could have ‘significant consequences’ for customers.

But the warning has not deterred Barclays, Lloyds and TSB, which will still close a combined total of 198 branches in the first three months of the year.

Banks and building societies have repeatedly insisted that the number of customers visiting their branches is falling. 

But there are now fears that they will use the drop in visits in the pandemic as an excuse to close more branches.

HSBC said last month that 90 per cent of its customer service is now conducted over the phone or online, as it announced 82 branch closures.

Yet our poll confirms how millions of customers still rely on a local bank branch — with more than 80 per cent of us using the face-to-face services they offer. Fewer than one in five said they ‘never’ visit them.

The research, conducted by Consumer Intelligence, found that 18 per cent of us head to a local bank branch on a monthly basis.

But with so many disappearing, many are no longer ‘local’ at all.

Ex-bank manager who says: I can’t bear what job’s become 

Industry veteran: Tony Foot started his bank career in 1964

Industry veteran: Tony Foot started his bank career in 1964

Industry veteran: Tony Foot started his bank career in 1964

When Tony Foot started his bank career in 1964, there were a handful of branches in every town and the manager knew all their customers by name. Here, the 74-year-old retired bank manager explains why we all lose out when banks close their doors…

During my career, I always regarded myself as an old-fashioned bank manager, involved in the community as a parish councillor, trustee of local charities, treasurer of clubs, and a source of honest, unbiased financial advice.

I joined a High Street bank in 1964 and was given two books – The Branch Banker by Dandy and Principles Of Banking by Len Mather. Both emphasised how important personal relationships were.

You were expected to be discreet and to join clubs and societies such as the Round Table, Rotary, Lions and similar, so you would be part of – and pillar of – the community.

You had to live on the patch where your branch was located, so as to be a local and approachable.

All this is now gone. When a branch closes you lose the willing volunteers, treasurers and committee members.

There is no longer a source of good employment nor careers for bright youngsters, particularly in small, rural towns.

Young and older folk lose being able to talk to someone they know and trust and who knows them. 

Small businesses are forced to travel some distance to pay in their takings and obtain cash, if indeed the nearest branch will still deal with cash.

It becomes almost impossible for a personal customer, small club or business to know who to talk to or how to contact ‘their manager’ – even if one exists.

All they have is a central number to a call centre, where they are bombarded with recorded messages about it being easier and better to bank online.

They are forced to wait and wait for the Muzak to end and to hear a human voice, presumably to reinforce their bank’s wish that they go digital.

Firms claim there are alternative methods to bank other than a branch. This includes using the telephone or one of the remaining Post Offices, computer or even mobile phone app.

All this does is to remove any hope of dealing with a person you know and who knows you. You no longer belong – you are an account number and a credit score. 

The older you get and the more technical society is, the more difficult and frightening it becomes.

Using a computer, if you have one, with stiff fingers, terrified of pushing the wrong button, or a cash machine with small, hard-to-see buttons and screen present real challenges. 

There is also the worry about what happens when you can no longer cope and you have no one to turn to for help and are vulnerable to scammers.

Despite their glossy advertising, banks no longer care. They are dealing with a captive market where a bank account is almost mandatory.

The call is to centralise everything, shut branches, cut costs, cut staff and increase the bottom line.

Customers will just have to do the work and bank online whether they like it or not, even if reliable broadband is not available or the cost almost unaffordable. The banks’ profits come first.

This is not what I knew as banking. It is cold and impersonal money-making — and I hate it.

Almost two in five face a trip of at least three miles to their branch, with almost one in five living more than five miles away from a branch. 

And 7 per cent live more than ten miles from their branch. Three out of five said they deposit and withdraw cash, while a similar number visit branches to deposit cheques.

More than a quarter of over-65s felt branch staff had pushed them to use a self-service machine when they wanted to queue for the counter.

And one in five had felt pressured by their bank to switch to online and mobile services.

However, across all ages, a third of people said service at their bank branch has worsened, with four in ten saying they didn’t feel valued by their bank.

While just 12 per cent could name a member of staff at their branch.

But, despite negative feedback, seven in ten still say their branch is ‘quite’ or ‘very busy’ when they visit.

Neena Bhati, head of campaigns at Which?, says: ‘While many can benefit from digital banking, for those unable to bank online, branches often remain the only option to carry out essential banking tasks.’

Natalie Ceeney, chairman of the Access to Cash Review, adds: ‘Digital still doesn’t yet work for everyone. Not everyone has a smartphone, let alone broadband or decent mobile coverage.’ 

And Caroline Abrahams, of charity Age UK, says: ‘We need banks to protect access to face-to-face services to prevent communities being cut off from their money.’

Nationwide’s promise didn’t add up for our village

Britain’s biggest building society may have promised to keep at least one branch open in towns and cities until 2023 – but the pledge offers little comfort to the village of Anstey in Leicestershire.

With a population of more than 6,500, it has more residents than some small towns. But the villagers are fighting to save their only Nationwide.

Transactions in the branch have fallen by just 7 per cent in five years – but it is set to shut its doors on March 31 after serving residents for decades.

Campaign: David Snartt, a Nationwide customer and mayor of the Charnwood borough, has been pleading with the building society to keep it open

Campaign: David Snartt, a Nationwide customer and mayor of the Charnwood borough, has been pleading with the building society to keep it open

Campaign: David Snartt, a Nationwide customer and mayor of the Charnwood borough, has been pleading with the building society to keep it open

Originally due to be closed down this month, it was granted a stay of execution after the City watchdog told banks to rethink any closures during lockdown.

David Snartt, a Nationwide customer and mayor of the Charnwood borough, has been pleading with the building society to keep it open.

David, 79, says: ‘Quite a few older people live in these villages and not all are able to walk – or drive – to the nearest branches, which are more than four miles away.

‘Even if they take the bus, the service only runs every three hours.’

Marlene Ann-Lennon, 77, and husband Patrick Lennon, 82, have been visiting the branch for more than 40 years.

And when it closes, their five-minute stroll to the bank will become a 40-minute bus trip and a 15-minute walk, which Patrick will not be able to manage.

Grandmother-of-four Marlene says: ‘I was absolutely devastated when I found out the branch was closing and I just can’t see how Nationwide can be giving a thought to people like us when it makes these decisions.’

A Nationwide spokesman says ‘subsidising branches that have become unsustainable due to low footfall’ is not a good use of its members’ money.

He adds: ‘This is sadly the case with Anstey, where usage has continued to drop and where we have six branches within seven miles, with more than 60 per cent of members already using them.’  

Experts say new laws to protect cash – first promised in March last year — could be the only way of saving branches. 

But the Government is yet to reveal what these will be and whether they will prevent branch closures.

Campaigner Derek French, a former bank executive, says: ‘The all-ages queues outside lockdown branches that have remained open confirms Money Mail’s research, but the banks don’t want to hear that as they are hell-bent on getting us all to DIY, whether we like it or not. Ministers need to give the industry an overdue shove right now.’

A spokesman for banking trade body UK Finance says growing numbers of customers were opting to use ‘new technologies to manage their money, including services that connect customers to ‘face-to-face’ discussions’.

He adds: ‘But technology is not for everyone and bank branches continue to play an important role in the life of local communities, meaning decisions to close them are never taken lightly.’



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