Banks – who needs them? Well, actually, we all do. And news that thousands of local branches up and down the land could be set to close will not be taken lying down by campaigners and trade unions.
“We need a civic fightback on this; it’s in all our interests,” said Unite national officer for finance Rob MacGregor, after details emerged yesterday (March 26) of an agreement between Vince Cable and the British Bankers’ Association.
MacGregor estimates as many as half of all British high street banks may be set to close in the next few years as a result of the ‘Access to Banking Protocol’ deal.
He described this as giving “state approval” and “rubber stamping a vast closure model with no veto from the communities involved.”
MacGregor accused the Business Secretary of “failing miserably” and creating “havoc in communities through the closure programme.” He also said Cable – who’s on record as saying branches ‘can often be a lifeline’ – was now guilty of “betrayal and hypocrisy.”
Almost five hundred branches were closed last year, more than double the total for 2013 – including 124 which were the last bank in the community. Some 142 more are due to close before this April, more than a third of which are the last banks in the town or village.
MacGregor scoffs at lenders being required to provide a 12-week notice period of any plans to close a branch. “This agreement is not a case of ‘we are talking about closing your branch’, it’s ‘we are closing your branch’,” he said.
He’s also convinced those most likely to shut their doors will be in deprived areas, rather than what he calls the “shires and leafy suburbs”, where middle class residents may be more apt to complain.
For their part, banks argue they are simply catering to the increased demand for online services, and that in many rural communities not enough customers come in on a given week.
MacGregor acknowledges this point but believes lenders have short memories.
“Yes there has to be change because of the advance of online banking and so forth but banks must also remember how they have been fully supported by the taxpayer.
“The entire banking system would have gone to the wall in 2008 had it not been for the British taxpayer. This is our finance industry and it belongs to all of us, not the well-heeled individuals who run it,” he said.
“Yet it seems the bosses of British banks have no interest in our communities,” he added. “It’s important to remember that bank branches, like pubs and post offices, are integral to community life.”
That’s a point taken up by the Campaign for Community Banking Services, which estimates that more than 1200 communities in total have lost all their banks.
“This protocol will be a disappointment to communities and bank customers affected by bank closures past, present and future who need much more commitment from the banks and government,” said CCBS director Derek French.
“We had hoped for more progress and now look to the individual communities and small business organisations to keep up the pressure on the industry and the next government.”
With the general election just around the corner, the future of banking and branches may be about to force its way onto the political agenda as people around the UK begin to realise the effect losing local branches would have on their towns and villages.