We’ve been robbed of the chance to walk into a bank branch: David Behrens

Re-watching Alec Guinness in The Lavender Hill Mob the other week, it occurred to me why they don’t make bank heist movies like that any more. They couldn’t, could they? There are no banks left to rob.

Nearly half of all the nation’s branches have closed since 2015. HSBC alone has got rid of more than 600 and will close 114 more in the next few months. That’s a quarter of those it has left.

Prosperous centres like Ilkley, Wetherby and Horsforth are among the victims of this latest withdrawal, and the effect will trickle down into the communities as grand old bank buildings are reduced to nail salons and vape shops.

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Small branches, we are told, have been rendered redundant by the internet. Yet the latest news is that you can’t bank on that, either. Paym, [CRRCT] the national online system for making and receiving instant payments from friends and clients, is also being closed down – largely because no-one has heard of it, despite the participation of all the big banks.

David Behrens has his say. Picture by Simon HulmeDavid Behrens has his say. Picture by Simon Hulme
David Behrens has his say. Picture by Simon Hulme

On top of that, the number of free-to-use cash machines across the country has fallen by nearly a quarter since before the pandemic.

So if we can’t get to the bank, we can’t quickly transfer money and we can’t draw cash, how are we supposed to splash out in the January sales? Debit cards are the banks’ preferred method but the commission makes them too expensive for many small traders to accept.

And cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin, which were supposed to do away with cash and cards, have proved about as safe as taking a sackful of fivers to the sale counter at M&S. Just last month a cryptocurrency exchange called FTX collapsed and took a billion dollars of investors’ money with it. Its 30-year-old founder now stands accused of fraud.

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This raises a number of questions – not least, what the heck is cryptocurrency anyway? Everyone has read about it but hardly anyone knows how it works – and the standard answer that it’s part of a digital “blockchain” leaves you none the wiser. Is it real money or not?

The short answer is no, it’s not. Cryptocurrency is to the gullible and greedy what tobacco is to banged-up bank robbers. It is common currency because people are prepared to buy and sell it, but its actual value is nebulous.

What has been happening is amateur investors betting their shirts in the cryptocurrency markets on the expectation that the value of an imaginary commodity will rise and make them rich.

It’s a travesty brought on by misuse. Cryptocurrency was conceived as a universal means of payment administered by ordinary computer users, not banks. It would therefore be more democratic and less prone to profiteering – that was the theory. The Victorians invented building societies on the same principle.

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But that kind of altruism sits uncomfortably with the dramatic fluctuations in value. Bitcoin fell by 64 per cent this year and other cryptocurrencies by even more. They’re shrinking faster than HSBC’s network of branches.

This has happened because rumours of people making a quick killing set off a gold rush that hijacked the system and diverted funds into the hands of speculators and money launderers. That’s what you get if you let transfers go unregulated: a licence to print money.

Yet bizarrely, the Chancellor seems to want even less regulation. A fortnight before Christmas, Jeremy Hunt announced the biggest shake-up for decades of financial regulation, in the hope that a more relaxed regime would reinvigorate the City after Brexit. Doesn’t he remember what happened in 2008, when banks collapsed like dominoes because no-one was keeping an eye on what they were doing?

History is repeating itself now in the virtual world of cryptocurrency and the next victims will not be speculators but ordinary savers, conned into investing in castles in the air because no-one warned them not to.

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The Bank of England, to its credit, is against Hunt’s reforms, arguing that strong rules actually boost competitiveness. Yet even the current rules are not enough to stop banks doing more or less as they please.

Is it really too much to expect that they be made to guarantee a minimum level of public service by maintaining a presence where people need them? Is it beyond the ken of the regulators to set up a joint entity that would keep a branch open on every big high street?

They are, after all, supposed to be protecting our interests, not just those of the banks. And – if I’m not giving the ending of the film away – even Alec Guinness was made to do community service eventually.