It is a lie to claim that demand for in-person banking services is in decline - Andrew Vine

My local branch of the Halifax shuts next month on the grounds that customer demand is falling, which is a laughable claim for the dozen or so of us who were queuing for the counter on the last two occasions I’ve been in.

It’s always like that, busy at whatever time of day you go in, on every day of the week, which is fine because the staff are efficient, cheerful and polite, thanking customers for waiting and greeting those who have been coming in for years by name.

But that exemplary customer service comes to a halt in a few weeks’ time, when this branch is axed, just like the Barclays a few doors along that shut three months ago, both lost to the community on the basis of what is, bluntly, a lie.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

We’re being fed an untruth by the banking industry that demand for in-person services is in decline, when the evidence of our own eyes tells us different.

Andrew Vine's local Halifax is closing soonAndrew Vine's local Halifax is closing soon
Andrew Vine's local Halifax is closing soon

The Halifax close to my home is as busy now as it was when I first started using it 20 years ago. Other long-standing customers I know think the same.

What’s happening is less to do with declining demand than a determination by the banks to cut the costs of staffing and maintaining branches by forcing customers online.

It is a cynical tactic that compels fewer people to bank in-person by removing their ability to do so, which the banks then in turn blame for branch closures.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

They have no regard for the convenience of customers, particularly those who are older, or the viability of shopping streets which are struggling in the face of an onslaught from online retailing.

Even remaining branches are being hollowed out in terms of the services they offer in order to discourage customers. While queuing at the Halifax, the person ahead of me had a query about her credit card.

Sorry, she was told, we can’t deal with that here any more. You’ll have to go online or ring the call centre. Since when did an organisation that spends millions on mealy-mouthed adverts about how much it values its customers decide it’s a good idea to tell them it can’t help them in person?

But it’s part of the vicious circle that the banks are creating in order to massacre the branch network.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

Massacre isn’t too strong a word. Last week’s announcement by the Lloyds group – which includes Halifax – that 45 more branches are going will bring the number of closures this year to 623, including 185 Barclays.

Take a longer view, and the number of branches lost is staggering. According to the consumer champion, Which?, more than 5,700 branches have gone since 2015, and it would be no surprise if the pace of closures accelerates as banks make greater use of artificial intelligence in their online operations.

Such a massive number of losses must inevitably have seriously inconvenienced hundreds of thousands of people, both private customers and those who run businesses. I know many with customers still paying in cash who despair of these closures as banking their takings becomes a chore.

They have left gaps on streets and contributed to the general sense of decay that is such a blight on so many shopping areas.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

Entire towns now have no bank, and suburbs of our biggest cities such as Leeds, Bradford and Sheffield with populations equivalent to some of Yorkshire’s smaller towns are without any branches.

To its credit, the Post Office has stepped up to plug as many of the gaps as it can, and the lie is further put to the banks’ assertions about declining customer demand by the establishment of financial hubs where people can carry out their business face-to-face.

But they can’t adequately make up for the losses already suffered, which disproportionately affect older customers either unable or unwilling to do their banking online.

It is a measure of the banks’ contempt for this category of customer that they are the most long-standing and loyal of clients of companies that now blithely turn their backs on them.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

Among my neighbours are retired people who have to take bus journeys of an hour or more to do their banking at a branch that remains open, instead of walking 10 minutes to the nearest parade of shops.

The Government needs to intervene and lean on the banks to halt these endless branch closures, just as it put pressure on fuel retailers earlier this year who were profiteering from forecourts by keeping prices high even as wholesale costs fell.

Ministers should not be shy of reminding the banks that it was public money – the money of their customers – that saved them from going bust during the 2008 financial crisis caused by their own greed and mismanagement.

We bailed them out to the tune of £50bn. They should, in part, repay that debt by keeping branches open and ceasing to treat their customers as a nuisance.