Counting the personal cost: when axing bank branches doesn’t add up

As thousands are taken off the high street, fears grow for the vulnerable left without access to services

Once, high streets offered a choice of three or four banks. Now, 50 branches are closing every month, making what was a reliable cornerstone of every town, a rarer and rarer fixture.

Earlier this year the financial regulator called on banks to reconsider closures, amid fears that vulnerable people could be left without access to services.

Consumer group Which? says that since 2015 almost 4,200 branches have closed. Barclays, it says, has reduced its network the most, with 650 branches closed, or planned to be closed, by the end of this year, while the NatWest Group – NatWest, Royal Bank of Scotland and Ulster Bank – closed 1,086 branches, and Lloyds Banking Group 680.

This can be infuriating, isolating and result in long hours of travel if you need to do banking in person. Observer readers have told of their concerns. A 93-year-old man says he cannot afford the £20 taxi fare to his new “local” Nationwide, 11 miles from his home; a retired woman misses the social interaction since her Co-operative Bank shut after 35 years; and a 27-year-old, whose banking life is spent online, had to travel miles at the peak of the pandemic to get simple documents printed for a mortgage application.

We also heard from a woman with early stage Parkinson’s, who does not trust herself with online access codes, but who is losing her local branch and now has to use public transport to get to the closest Santander.

A reliable face

When she was in the early stage of dementia, Margaret Hughes* was comfortable going to her local bank, as she knew the staff and they could help her with her withdrawals.

“She liked always having money in her purse,” says her daughter Anne*. “She was happy to write a cheque but she always wanted cash. She would go in because people knew her. As she got older, that became more important … that she recognised a face. And they knew her by her first name.”

Before her death earlier this year, Margaret lived in the south-east of England. The local HSBC was shut six years ago and she was redirected to a branch four miles away in a bigger town.

“It was nowhere near a blue-badge parking space. So when she had dementia, we had the dilemma of ‘Do I leave her standing there alone while I try and park the car, or do I take a very long walk with her, and sit her down for a bit and rest?’ It was really not good,” says Anne.

Margaret had never learned to use email or a mobile phone, so going to the local branch was her only way of withdrawing money.

“She liked going in. Giving someone a card and a pin number when they are beginning to lose their memory, meant she could not always do it. She could get cash over the counter. And she was always in fear of losing her card, which happened quite frequently.”

Cross-border banking

For artist Morag Eaton, who runs the Foldyard gallery with her partner Dave Watson in Berwick-Upon-Tweed – a coastal Northumberland town three miles from the Scottish border – depositing her takings means travelling to another country.

They originally had their accounts with the Midland Bank and stayed when HSBC bought it in 1992. When they moved to Berwick 11 years ago, their nearest HSBC was in Alnwick, 38 miles away. That closed six years ago, so their closest option is now Morpeth, 50 miles south. Instead of driving there, they head to Edinburgh when they need to go to a branch, almost 60 miles away. “It is easier to get on a train to Newcastle or Edinburgh than drive to Morpeth,” says Eaton.

When their customers pay cash, the pair say that they become anxious, because they cannot simply deposit it, as a quick trip to the bank is out of the question.

“Having money in the house is an anxiety for practical reasons, and you have to be aware that you don’t just go and use the money if you need it for something.”

There are other banks in Berwick-Upon-Tweed, but Eaton remains loyal to HSBC. “They were good to us in the past when they could have been very difficult, and we prize loyalty,” she says.

This extends to not using the local post office, where they could lodge money direct to their HSBC account, as they are not happy going through a third party.

A problem for the ageing

Artist Mary Husted first joined Midland Bank, which later joined HSBC, in 1963. When she moved to Barry in Wales in 1979, it was one of three banks on the high street.

Her local HSBC is expected to close in September and she will have to drive for 25 minutes to Penarth. “People could encounter someone they could trust, that they got to know – they no longer have that. I can do things online, but sometimes they go wrong and then I have to try and get someone on the phone and that can take an hour to get through. Getting older is frustrating in other ways; you don’t need these things.”

Husted’s paintings sell for between £200 and £900 and buyers often pay by cheque. Although HSBC lets customers deposit cheques valued at up to £500 using their mobile banking app, she says she is anxious about using her phone for banking and always deposits them at a branch.

“I just doggedly refuse to have an app on my phone. Supposing I dropped it or mislaid it? The key thing is trust. How do you trust a voice on the phone? If you have something that you are concerned about financially, you would want to go and see someone. You know that you are talking to, and that they are who they say they are.”

HSBC, the bank used by all the customers who spoke to the Observer, says the changes to its network of branches are necessary to make it “fit for the future” and that there will need to be an “evolution” in how customers bank.

“Virtually all customer servicing can be done using our mobile app, or online banking, including receiving mortgage documents (which can then be printed at a customer’s convenience), depositing cheques, increasing an overdraft, reporting cards lost or stolen, putting in place a gambling block, applying for a credit card or personal loan, and much more.”

It adds: “It is also important to note that customers can also complete day-to-day transactions at the local post office, which may be even more convenient than a trip to a branch.

“We are very conscious that there will be some customers who are less confident, or comfortable, using self-service options, and we contact vulnerable customers by phone to discuss a forthcoming closure, explaining and supporting them with alternative ways to do their banking.”

*Names have been changed


Shane Hickey

The GuardianTramp

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