Martin Vickers: Bank branches are vital to economy of the high street

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WHEN we talk of a high street, we have a vision of a cluster of small shops – butchers, bakers, newsagents and so on — but they are always supplemented by the local solicitor’s office, perhaps an insurance broker and, of course, our high street banks. They come together and provide the essential ingredients of a thriving local economy, not just in our provincial towns but – perhaps even more so —in our market towns.

Barton-upon-Humber is one such place. Three years ago, it suffered a major setback when the Kimberly-Clark factory closed. That resulted in more than 500 job losses but, thankfully, Wren Kitchens took over the factory and it is now a thriving commercial enterprise, employing almost as many people as when Kimberly-Clark had it and with the prospect of yet more jobs in the pipeline.

The reduction in the Humber Bridge tolls has been a real boost to the local economy, but the offshore renewables sector, based around the ports of Immingham and Killingholme, has made Barton very much an expanding town. More residents equal more potential customers, whatever the business — or so people would think. That will not be so at our high street banks, NatWest and HSBC, which have recently announced the closure of their branches.

Of course, we all recognise that banking has changed, particularly for the personal customer, and in that respect most of us are to varying 
degrees guilty. We want the 
bank or the bookshop there when it suits us, but for the rest of the time we are tempted by online banking, Amazon or whatever. However, that is no help to our local butcher, newsagent or other trader who wants to offload his takings for the day.

Let me focus on NatWest, as it was the first to announce the closure of its branch. Like most high street banks, it occupies a major building, in the marketplace in Barton. It has been there since 1913.

The announcement came as a disappointment to the community: private customers and small businesses. Older residents in particular feel it as a blow. Once again, personal contact is being taken away. Local people are concerned this might be the start of a trend.

NatWest has provided me with a host of statistics. It says that branch transactions have fallen by 36 per cent in the past five years and mobile transactions have increased by 300 per cent.

It states: “Only nine per cent of our transactions were undertaken in our branches in 2014, compared to 25 per cent in 2010.”

It goes on say: “We know the value of the High Street branch, we have the second largest branch network in the UK, and it will remain the cornerstone of our service to customers.”

How will it remain the cornerstone if it is closed? Branches are important because they provide an opportunity for customers to interact with staff on what may be big life decisions.

The British Bankers Association has provided me with a host of information about how banks go about assessing closures, but people are rather cynical about consultation processes.

They tend to think that the bank decides on closure and consults on how to go about the closure, not on whether the closure should take place. I hope that the review of the protocol, which is scheduled for a year after it comes into force, will result in its having a few more teeth than has been the case up to now.

The British Bankers Association protocol does go into a fair amount of detail, whereas the Government’s website is a bit thin on the ground.

I therefore welcome the agreement that banks will work more closely with their customers and local communities to minimise the impact of bank closures.

In other words, it is an acceptance that bank closures will take place. My constituents look to me, and I look to the Government to be on their side and the side of customers — not on the side of the banks, which are well-positioned to take account of themselves.

If we are to expand our market towns, however, shops need the services of our local banks.

Banks, I am afraid, take a rather high-handed attitude. It is easy for us all to slip into the much-favoured habit of criticising bankers, and I accept that we are talking about high street bankers rather than those who have even less public appeal.

The reality, however, is that customers, such as the local newsagent, who are looking for services from their bank will easily notice the large profits and the rather generous – to put it kindly – payments to senior directors.

If just a little of that were to trickle down into the local branch network, perhaps we could sustain our market towns and small shops to a much greater extent than we have done in the past.

Martin Vickers is the Conservative MP for Cleethorpes who spoke in a Parliamentary debate on banking. This is an edited version.