Sarah Todd: Hold the banks to account over rural branch closures

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BANKS should be ashamed. No, never mind misselling insurance, a bonkers bonus culture and insulting interest rates. It’s the decimation of the market town network of branches that is the biggest scandal of all.

National predictions of 2,500 market town bank branches closing over the next five years have yet to hit home. Yet this wicked selling-off of the family silver will start to become clear once the Christmas decorations have been put away.

Within the last few days, NatWest has confirmed it is shutting two of its banks in Ryedale. The branches in Helmsley and Kirkbymoorside will close on March 10.

An early childhood memory is going with Grandpa to the bank to “get the cheque paid in” after the cattle market. It was a weekly routine and en-route home we would collect a newspaper and a bit of shopping.

My grandmother is now 96. If we had a pound for every idiot who has asked “is she online?” she would be able to treat everybody at the home where she lives to a seasonal sherry and slap-up Christmas lunch.

No, of course she isn’t “online”. Nor is my father, a North Yorkshire farmer, who sorts out the money she needs. He doesn’t do this via some computer screen or mobile phone app; like thousands of others he goes into the local branch of the bank. He’s tried telephoning but always ends up on hold or talking to somebody in India – or (you knew this was coming) a combination of the two.

Yawning executives will dismiss this as evidence of the last few dinosaurs remaining that aren’t banking online.

Not so. We mustn’t allow it to become so. If we do, we are putting people out of jobs and doing ourselves out of a service which – as the taxpayers who have so often been called upon to bail banks out – we are entitled to.

We deserve a cheery “good morning” and a mince pie at Christmas. It’s an important link with our money and small business owners will support the fact that those who come into town to do their banking don’t go straight home. They then do their shopping. Not online, but in real shops that employ local people.

Ever since 1972, within the first month of my arrival on this earth, a building society passbook has been an intrinsic possession.

Staff were given short shrift the other day when they looked skywards as the next generation took in bags of change they’d gathered up. “These are the children who will keep you in a job,” they were warned.

This is at the crux of the matter. Children aren’t saving; we are a society where debt is worn like a badge of honour rather than something to be ashamed of.

Just the other day, the lady behind the counter in the post office was asked if there were any leaflets on children’s savings accounts. Rather than adding to the pile of plastic playthings, it would make sense to give our little nieces some money for Christmas.

“It’s all done online now,” she said. “We don’t have any information here…”

So the upshot is they’ll get something made in China (batteries not included) because the banking industry has made it too complicated for Auntie Sarah to save on their behalf. It’s a conspiracy; all the time pushing us towards doing their job for them. For the same reason the self-checkout aisles at the supermarket are avoided like the plague. “You’ll get through quicker,” the assistants say. “Yes, but you’ll end up out of a job…”

The Campaign for Community Banking Services predicts the UK’s 9,500-strong branch network will plummet to 7,000 by the end of 2018, shedding more than a quarter of existing branches. One of its main arguments is that frail and elderly customers will have to travel miles to reach their nearest branch. Fair point. But it really is our culture – where youngsters don’t ever feel real money in their hands – that is the worry.

Our teenage daughter went shopping with a friend and was amazed that the other 13 year-old had her own debit card. While our child came home with an empty purse her friend had nothing to measure the shopping bags against. She had typed in a magic number and got all these goodies. It was like she hadn’t actually spent any money, marvelled our offspring. Explaining she had was like pulling teeth. Yours truly had to pay for the friend’s bus fare and lunch as, you’ve guessed it, she never has any “real” money on her.

Poor broadband connection and non-existent mobile phone signals are other, more practical, arguments against the axing of rural bank branches. All these fancy television adverts telling us that managing our money is just a text message away are a foreign language to those of us who have to yomp across at least four acres to get any kind of connection.

It’s time for the Government to step in and make it illegal for banks to close the last branch in a town. With branches disappearing at a rate of up to 300 a year, it is a very real threat.

A recent trip to Edinburgh was punctuated with a festive tipple in The Standing Order, the marvellous old bank building that is now – like so many – part of the Wetherspoon pub chain. All fine and dandy in a capital city. But beware of a much more glass half-empty tale to come in Yorkshire’s rural market towns.