Banking on change as counter service returns to the Yorkshire Dales town of Hawes

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He was desperately ill by then, and as the cameras clicked away he clung for support to a handrail outside the little community centre in Hawes. But the sense of achievement was written all over John Blackie’s face.

He had come, five months after Hawes had learned it was to lose its last bank, to hear the boss of the Newcastle Building Society announce the opening of a new branch there.

Jill McMullon (left)  with Amanda Owen, the Yorkshire Shepherdess, who opened the Newcastle Building Society branch in Hawes

Jill McMullon (left) with Amanda Owen, the Yorkshire Shepherdess, who opened the Newcastle Building Society branch in Hawes

Five days later, Mr Blackie died, at the end of a 12-year battle with cancer.

Yesterday, Jill McMullon, his partner of 15 years looked on in the stone building that also contains the village post office, library and information centre, as the local author and self-styled Yorkshire Shepherdess, Amanda Owen, performed the opening ceremony.

It was a bittersweet occasion, reflected Ms McMullon, who succeeded Coun Blackie as chair of Hawes and High Abbotside Parish Council.

“John won’t be able to see it but I know how delighted he would be if he was here,” she said.

Amanda Owen, the Yorkshire Shepherdess,  is shown around the new branch of the   Newcastle Building Society in the Upper Wensleydale Community Office in  Hawes, by staff member Catherin Chapman

Amanda Owen, the Yorkshire Shepherdess, is shown around the new branch of the Newcastle Building Society in the Upper Wensleydale Community Office in Hawes, by staff member Catherin Chapman

“It was the very last thing he 
arranged for the town before he died. He knew he was terribly ill but he was extremely concerned about the last bank going. He thought the banks had abandoned us.

“When the building society approached him, having read about it in the papers, he was delighted because he knew it was a service he could provide.

“And when the chief executive came down, he made himself get out of bed to meet him. And you can see on his face how proud he was to do so.”

Barclays’ withdrawal from Hawes last July was part of a cost-saving drive that saw 172 small branches across the country shut down. Banking would be done instead by phone or online, the company said.

But Coun Blackie had said that for his constituents it meant “the pillars of village infrastructure are tumbling down”.

In a career that took in county, district and National Park politics, he had previously helped to establish a community-run petrol station in Hawes that was famously cheaper than Tesco, and a community bus at a time when rural public transport was being decimated.

The office space the Newcastle will occupy is owned by North Yorkshire County Council. The building society will open it five days a week, with a staff of three.

Ms McMullon said: “It’s a refreshing change to see something opening, not closing.

“There was a real fear when Barclays went that people wouldn’t be able to able to access cash 24/7. And we need that in a big tourist area like this, where a lot of businesses can’t take cards because there’s no mobile signal.”

She added: A lot of these big groups only think in terms of cities – they take no regard to rural areas. Yet we pay the same council taxes up here.”

Ms Owen said before declaring the branch open yesterday that the importance of retaining banking facilities in rural towns could not be overstated.

“There’s been talk about the end of the cheque book – but not in this neck of the woods,” she said. “That doesn’t mean that we’re behind the times – just that things have to operate differently.

“We’re at the mercy of poor internet. People send cheques as deposits for holiday homes and you can’t take two hours out of your day to drive to a bank to pay them in. You can’t change to another bank either, when all of them have gone.”