The retreat of banks from Britain’s high streets is in full flight. Branches across the country are being axed at a rate never witnessed before as the big banking organisations seek to ruthlessly cut costs and push more people online.
In many instances, the closures are leaving villages and towns without a bank, forcing both residents and retailers to travel further afield to do their banking.
Communities that a year ago had a choice of banks have now become banking wastelands with only the local post office and the odd cash machine – banking tumbleweed – providing locals with access to cash and basic services.
Deserted: Communities that a year ago had a choice of banks have now become banking wastelands
Although some towns and villages – such as Colyton in Devon – are furiously fighting the imminent closure of their last branch, fearing it will have an adverse impact on the rest of the community, the banks are playing hardball and refusing to budge.
The Mail on Sunday has long campaigned for banks to share high street premises in communities which would otherwise be bankless.
While charities and business groups such as Age UK, the Federation of Small Businesses and Which? support such an idea, the big banks have resisted and now appear to have crushed the concept.
The Campaign for Community Banking Services, led for the past two decades by ex-NatWest banker Derek French, has quietly been dismantled – leaving the banks to steamroller through branch closures in their droves.
Last week, French confirmed the campaign’s website was being taken down ‘so as not to give any encouragement to communities which think they can save their branch once its closure has been announced’.
He added: ‘Community banks would have been right for everyone – communities and the banks. But the battle has been lost and we must now brace ourselves for a bout of branch closures that in terms of scale and adverse impact has never been witnessed before in this country. High streets are going to take an almighty pounding.’
French is right to be gloomy. The Mail on Sunday has exclusively obtained details of the branches that two of the country’s biggest banking groups, HSBC and part state-owned Lloyds, have put on notice of closure by early December. The closure lists make for frightening reading.
Last week, HSBC shut seven branches, bringing its total closures this year to 145. It has also informed customers at a further 61 outlets that their branch is being axed. Five of these 61 will close as early as this Friday.
HSBC has been the most eager among the big banks to decimate its high street network. In the past three years, it has steadily ramped up its closure programme – from 47 in 2013, 95 in 2014 to 109 last year.
This year’s total – equivalent to nearly four closures per week – is already double last year’s total and further closure announcements by the year end cannot be ruled out.
The bank says the closures are in response to a 40 per cent reduction in usage of its branches over the past five years – with 93 per cent of contact with the bank now made via the telephone, internet or smartphone. Some 97 per cent of cash withdrawals, it says, are via a cash machine.
Lloyds has also provided The Mail on Sunday with a list of 60 branches that will be culled by November. Closures affect all its high street brands – Bank of Scotland, Halifax and Lloyds.
And 200 branches will go next year, bringing total closures between 2014 and 2017 to 400. The closures, it says, are in response to changing ‘customer behaviour’.
Royal Bank of Scotland, which embraces the NatWest brand, has shut 51 branches this year. It says there are no branches currently on notice of closure but it is busy reshaping its branch network.
The bank is creating 600 ‘main’ branches out of a network of 1,300 where customers will be able to access the full range of services.
The rest of its branches will be ‘local’ outlets, offering basic services such as cash banking and with opening hours tailored ‘to the needs of the local community’.
Barclays has cut 24 branches this year. Its Bexley branch in South London shuts early next month. It declined to reveal if other branches were on notice of impending closure.
Last week, we spoke with the residents of three communities where the plug is being pulled on their last branch in town.
Battle: Lloyds closure plan has caused an uproar in historic Colyton, Devon
The town of Colyton in Devon prides itself on its rebellious past. In the late 17th Century, 105 of its residents backed a quest by the Duke of Monmouth to overthrow King James II.
The Monmouth rebellion failed spectacularly but it is still spoken about in the town to this day with residents labelling Colyton the ‘most rebellious town in Devon’.
It is not surprising therefore that Lloyds’ decision to close the only bank in town on October 12 has caused an uproar among the 3,000 residents, various local business groups and councillors.
Jacqueline McCullogh, chairwoman of the ‘Promote Colyton’ group, believes Lloyds should be ashamed of itself.
She says: ‘We have had a bank in Colyton for some 200 years. It’s part of the town’s fabric as is the local pharmacy, the two convenience stores, the library and the health centre.
‘By deserting us, it has put its pursuit of profits before the proud people of this great community of ours who strive every day to make Colyton great.’
She adds: ‘I am sick to death of hearing about online banking and how the young are eagerly embracing it.
‘But what about a more financially inclusive society where the banks not only look after the internet-comfortable but those who like or need to use a high street branch – the elderly, local retailers and charity workers who fundraise tirelessly. Colyton needs and deserves a bank, plain and simple.’
Liz Berry, parish clerk, says the bank’s closure will particularly hit the elderly who will have to travel to Axminster or Seaton, seven and three miles away, if they want to use a Lloyds branch in the future.
‘Public transport around here is virtually non-existent,’ she says. ‘So it is going to take some effort for many of our elderly residents to use these alternative Lloyds branches.
‘My fear is that once these people go to Axminster or Seaton for their banking, they will do their shopping there as well. That in turn will threaten the viability of many of the shops in Colyton.’
Local retailers are not only worried about a possible downturn in business once Lloyds shuts up shop.
They are also concerned about how they will bank their takings. Cathy Richards, who runs the local newsagent’s with her husband, says the bank’s closure will cause them a ‘real headache’.
She says: ‘We run a cash-only business and rely on Lloyds to bank our takings. Given I don’t drive and my husband is busy in the shop from dawn to dusk, how are we supposed to pay in our takings?
‘Most of our customers are elderly. What are they going to do once the bank goes? At the moment, we have a vibrant town centre but I am afraid it will take a turn for the worse once Lloyds disappears.’
LLOYDS’ RESPONSE: We invited Lloyds to comment on its decision to close its Colyton branch. It said the branch had only 46 regular weekly customers and nine in ten personal customers used other branches such as at Seaton.
It also said these customers could use the town’s post office to do basic banking. Berry disputes Lloyds’ statistics, as do local residents and businesses who complain about constant queues in the branch.
Robert Jones’s plea to The Mail on Sunday, made last week, was heartfelt: ‘If there is anything you can do to help an area in dire need of a bank, we would be very grateful.’
A retired secondary school teacher, Robert has spent the last 46 years living in Blaenau Ffestiniog, Gwynedd, a town famous for its roofing slate and the narrow gauge Ffestiniog Railway that used to transport the slate to the harbour of Porthmadog where it was shipped to all four corners of the world.
Steam-rollered: Robert Jones faces a 24-mile drive after HSBC announced the closure of its Blaenau Ffestiniog branch
As long as he can remember, Robert, 73, has banked with HSBC – or Midland Bank as it was previously known. But now he doesn’t know what to do, given the bank has decided its Blaenau Ffestiniog branch must close next month.
He is faced with three choices, none of which he likes – to use the local post office to do his banking; drive to HSBC’s branch in Porthmadog (a round trip of 24 miles); or bank online.
Robert, recently widowed, says: ‘What annoys me about HSBC’s decision is that it comes just a year after NatWest pulled out of the town. To lose two banks is awful. To be left with no bank is inexplicable.
‘Blaenau Ffestiniog has its economic challenges but if a community of 5,000 people does not warrant a high street bank, it does not bode well for hundreds of other towns.’
Like many people, Robert is not keen to use online banking. ‘I am loath to use a banking system where I cannot see the person I am dealing with. I also do not want to leave myself open to internet fraud.’
HSBC’S RESPONSE: The bank, not deflected by an 800-strong petition against the closure, says it is doing all it can to help customers consider ‘alternative ways of banking’ with it.
HSBC also says customers will be able to use the local post office to bank. It boasts it has kept councillors and local MP Liz Saville Roberts fully in the picture.
BOURNE END, BUCKS
Like Blaenau Ffestiniog, Bourne End had two banks a year ago – NatWest and Lloyds. First NatWest closed and now Lloyds is shutting. In early October, the town will be bankless.
Martin Sharpe, a retired banker, lives in Bourne End and says Lloyds’s decision is illogical. ‘The branch is one of the busiest in this part of Buckinghamshire. I just don’t understand the economics behind the closure.’
Dianne Lake, a retired personal assistant, agrees. Although she lives in Marlow, she does most of her banking in Bourne End because it is easier to park and the staff are so helpful.
She says: ‘Lloyds has given no thought whatsoever to the local community. I call it dire customer service.’
LLOYDS’ RESPONSE: Lloyds says its Bourne End branch has only 34 regular weekly personal and business customers. It also says the post office is only ‘a short walk away’.