Andrew Vine: Betrayal of communities by banks and post offices must end

MY local post office shuts in two days' time, and with it goes a little bit more of that indefinable something that binds the neighbourhood together.

The closure of local post offices is destroying the fabric of communities, argues Andrew Vine. Do you agree?

For me, it’s essentially an inconvenience. A week never passes without me using the post office, and now, instead of a 10-minute walk, I’ll jump in the car and drive the mile-and-a-half to the nearest alternative, even though parking there is usually a bind.

But what about the many elderly people living locally who don’t drive? A dozen or more of my neighbours are in that position, and what amounts to a short trip for me is a difficulty for them.

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Then there are the residents of a newly-built complex of retirement flats, sold at least partly on the basis that a bustling parade of local shops – including a post office – was only a couple of hundred yards away.

It isn’t just the loss of the post office that is making life that much more difficult for them, or anyone else who likes to carry out their transactions face-to-face.

A few months ago, the local branch of Leeds Building Society shut, a couple of doors down, much to the annoyance of its customers.

Yes, there’s an alternative a mile away, but the loss of my local branch and several others has left it often overwhelmed, as it was when I went in last week and found myself at the end of a queue of 15 people and a 25-minute wait to be served.

Both building society and post office were staffed by friendly, helpful and knowledgeable people who knew their customers, and went out of their way to help those of them who were older and liked to take their time over transactions.

But what does that matter when set against corporate number-crunching over footfall, or the familiar refrain that more people are conducting their business online?

It does matter, though. It matters greatly. It’s too easily forgotten that there is a substantial cohort of customers who either aren’t online, or not comfortable with handling their finances in any other way than dealing directly with somebody over a counter.

And it matters to the remaining local businesses 
who bank their takings at the post office at the end of the working day.

How insulting it is to regard those customers as, effectively, an inconvenience. Financial institutions appear to have lost sight of the fact that a cheque or cash handed over the counter are worth just as much as the same sum sent by electronic transfer.

Loss of local branches is about much more than convenience. It is a threat to the cohesion of communities and the survival of other retailers, often independents. If customers 
can’t do their banking on the same parade where they shop, there is a likelihood of them heading elsewhere.

The departure of banks is a particular concern, and the rate of their loss is worrying. Last year, the four big High Street banks closed, or announced the closure, of 948 branches.

If this trend continues, in a few years’ time we could see branches only in the centres of cities and the larger towns, with the suburbs and the countryside forgotten about.

Where do these closures leave the private customers and the businesses that relied on them? They aren’t indicative that nobody was using the branches, but that the banks judged that not enough of them were.

We surely can’t be expected to believe that everybody who used to go through the doors of their local branch has gone online instead.

The banks’ relentless encouragement to customers to use the internet – essentially because an algorithm costs far less than a member of staff – is only hastening the decline of the branch network.

In the face of bank closures, the network of post offices has become ever more important. If we are to start losing that in addition to the bank branches, it spells trouble for communities, especially smaller ones and those in rural areas.

The major banks have already left some Yorkshire towns without branches, and in doing so have created a serious difficulty for businesses which need to deposit their takings.

It is unacceptable to expect customers, especially the elderly who may not have their own transport, to travel miles to do their banking.

There is an issue of social responsibility here. The banking and savings sectors are, by and large, very profitable and a proportion of that is due to customers who like to do their business in person, and should be able to.

They and their communities deserve something in return, and that is the maintenance of an extensive branch network, in order to both help businesses operate with as few obstacles in their way as possible, and as a service to older customers who might well have shown their loyalty to an institution over the course of many decades.