How high street banks fail their customers – Jayne Dowle

I HAVE a confession to make. Since the first lockdown in March 2020, I’ve visited the branch of my local NatWest bank perhaps just three or four times.

The closure of local banks across Yorkshire continues to cause consternation.
The closure of local banks across Yorkshire continues to cause consternation.

This makes me sad. About five years ago, I took both my children to this bank to open their first bank accounts. The manager was polite and professional and made Jack and Lizzie feel grown-up. It was good to make such a personal connection, but the pandemic has put paid to that kind of thing.

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For a start, the bank’s opening hours have been reduced, often at short notice, due to staff absence. My daughter has a cheque for £20, sent for her birthday in October by a distant relative.

The closure of local banks across Yorkshire continues to cause consternation.

She acknowledged it with thanks, obviously, but it’s still sitting in a drawer. Every time we’ve taken this kind of gift to town to deposit it the bank has been shut, in spite of the advertised hours on the website. I know it can’t be helped, but it’s very frustrating.

On the occasions I have managed to get across the threshold, the staff have looked fearful and apprehensive behind their masks and shields. The Covid-aware queueing system takes ages and the whole experience feels like a trial by hand sanitiser and social distancing.

My daughter doesn’t even own a cheque book so has no paying-in slips. I must sort this out, so we can take the cheque to our village Post Office branch.

For my own everyday banking needs, it’s long been far easier to nip in here and pay in any cheques and cash. Everything else I do on my phone.

Is the Post Office a viable alternative to those banks that have been shut?

There. I’ve admitted it. People like me are part of the problem; our increasing reliance on online technology is leading to the closure of bricks and mortar banks and building societies, putting vulnerable, disabled and older people at the risk of being ‘cut adrift’ according to a new report from the Which? consumer association.

It has been analysing the scale of bank and building society closures across to the UK. It counted 4,735 branches – equating to 48 per cent of the network analysed, or almost half – which have already closed or been earmarked for closure since January 2015. This has had a devasting effect on many town centres and villages. I know lots of people who used to plan a shopping trip to coincide with doing their banking. With no concrete reason to go into town, why bother? This has a severe knock-on effect on retailers and small businesses reliant on shoppers popping in. And what of small businesses themselves? Most still operate at least partly on a cash basis. Where are they to go to pay in their daily takings if the bank closes down?

Jenny Ross, money editor at Which?, says: “Wave after wave of bank branch closures in recent years have left many people who depend on them for essential banking services – particularly the elderly and vulnerable – at risk of being cut adrift.”

This would include my own parents, who rely on the Halifax branch in town for all their banking. If it ever closes, they will have to totally re-think their financial arrangements. I can’t see mum and dad ever putting their faith in online banking, or installing a bank app on their phones. Their nearest branch would be 10 miles away down the M1 at Meadowhall shopping centre.

As the former swimmer and Paralympic medal-winner Chris Holmes, now Baron Holmes of Richmond, says, the decline of “traditional face-to-face services” since the beginning of the pandemic has had a particularly deleterious effect on “the old, disabled and financially vulnerable”. He adds that some people who “would love to bank online” are prevented from doing so by poor broadband connection. This is a major factor which in our region, is far likely to put those living in rural and isolated locations at further disadvantage.

Is there a solution? The simple answer is that there are actually a number of solutions, but none of them are perfect.

The Post Office plays a strong role here, as it has an agreement with many banks allowing people to do their everyday banking over its counters. It’s not much use if you want to discuss a car loan or an investment portfolio, however.

To remedy this, there are plans for Post Office ‘bank hubs’ allowing a revolving rota of visiting bank reps to attend in person at a set time every week to meet customers face-to-face.

And the rise of the multi-purpose one-stop shop – a convenience store with a post office and an ATM – continues. However, as anyone who relies on such an outlet will tell you, this arrangement can be fraught. Queues stretch out the door. There’s no confidentiality, because you’re likely to be doing your banking business next to your neighbours. And if the ATM is inside the store, it’s only available when the shop is open.

It’s an inconvenient truth, for sure, but the very real financial needs of ordinary people are being ignored and over-ridden by the organisations which should serve them. This needs calling to account – in more ways than one.

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