STEP by step, the life is being drained out of my local parade of shops. First the post office shut, then the building society, and now the branch of Santander is to close in a few months’ time.
To hell with the convenience of customers, whether the likes of me paying in cheques, or the local trades people who bank their takings there. Stuff the older people who like to do their banking face-to-face and might struggle to travel the five miles to the nearest alternative branch.
And tough luck on the friendly, efficient staff who are presumably at risk of losing their jobs.
The day after the Santander closures were announced, a round-robin letter arrived from the bank’s grandly-titled “Head of Branch Interactions”, one Adam Bishop, which amongst its platitudes contained the line that if I wanted to know more I should “ask a member of our team at the branch”.
That’s rich, isn’t it? Ask them what? How worried they are about paying the mortgage if they get chopped? How the elderly customers I often see in there are going to manage their money without the admirably patient and courteous help of counter staff?
But social responsibility, or contributing to the sense of community that a parade of shops fosters, doesn’t enter into the sort of corporate thinking behind shutting this branch.
Instead, it contributes to the slow death of yet another shopping parade. When Santander shuts, four shops will stand empty. Four more are charity shops, not a sign of a thriving street. I wouldn’t bet against a fifth eventually opening in one of the empty properties.
I don’t suppose the fate of a suburban shopping parade in Leeds troubles the Santander management who made the closure decision for an instant. But more worrying, closures like this don’t seem to trouble the Government anything like as much as they should.
It has failed to act on an eminently sensible proposal put forward by one of its own backbenchers, Ochil and South Perthshire MP Luke Graham, a graduate of the University of Sheffield, to impose a legal requirement on banks closing branches to make alternative provision, allowing post offices to offer banking services. The bank would also have to pay £100,000 into a community pot to regenerate high streets for every branch it shuts.
This is exactly the sort of proactive measure that is required to halt the creeping death of our high streets. Bank closures are particularly harmful, because they don’t just inconvenience private customers, but make it harder for businesses to operate.
Santander is one of the world’s wealthiest banks. Its profits would not be significantly dented by keeping branches open, and if it can’t be persuaded to recognise an element of social responsibility, then it should be made to contribute towards giving shopping streets a chance of survival.
There is something else that the Government could do to help, and it wouldn’t cost the public purse a penny. That’s to regulate the frequency and level of rent increases imposed by shop landlords.
Two fledgling businesses near where I live – a barber’s shop and a café – were effectively shut down by swingeing rent increases. Both were set up by young people who, thanks to hard work, keen pricing and good service, quickly built a flourishing trade.
As soon as their landlords realised they were becoming successful, they attempted to cash in by imposing steep rent rises. Neither business could afford them, and moved out to cheaper premises, having to start again from scratch, much to their anger and frustration. As the barber put it to me: “I feel as if I’ve been penalised for making a go of my business.”
Both shops stand empty – just reward for the landlords’ greed, who are presumably now receiving no income from them – but they give an air of decline to their parades.
If our shopping streets are to survive, let alone thrive, start-up independents like the barber’s and café need to be nurtured.
The Government talks a good game on encouraging enterprise, but does too little in the way of practical regulation to ensure that small businesses are not being ripped off.
It simply cannot be right that landlords can drive people out of business by imposing arbitrary rent rises.
There is a sense of Government paralysis in the face of the retail crisis, whether it is gaps opening up on suburban shopping parades, or wholesale closures in town and city centres.
Ministers cannot just shrug their shoulders and say this is simply a matter of market forces, or consumers switching to the internet.
If we are not to end up with once-bustling streets boarded up, or full of charity shops, there needs to be a coherent strategy across a variety of fronts, including making banks give something back to the communities they undermine by shutting branches.