“Wath used to be called the Queen of Villages. Now it is just a bus stop.” It has been six months since the final two bank branches in Wath-upon-Dearne closed their doors, but the anger is still fresh for many residents like Bob Goode who say their community has suffered a noticeable decline as a direct result of the loss of HSBC and Yorkshire Bank.
Like many in the Dearne Valley village made up of 12,000 residents, which at its height used to have four bank branches on the high street, Bob and his wife Irene now travel the three miles to the town of Wombwell to do their banking. Others instead make a trip of a similar distance to Mexborough.
The distances may be small as the crow flies but the impact has been major. Stores have reported faltering trade as previously loyal customers instead combine their shopping with trips to bank branches elsewhere, while locals believe recent cuts to bus services serving Wath are connected to fewer people now visiting the heart of the village. All this while the two former bank buildings, just yards apart, still stand empty with little sign they will have new occupants any time soon.
While Yorkshire Bank and HSBC were not among the firms to take up a £500bn bailout of public money handed to banks in the 2008 financial crisis, locals are quick to draw a comparison between the support given to the sector a decade ago and ongoing branch closures in the industry.
Bob, aged 70, says: “They were happy to be bailed out and then they shut the branches a few years later. When you see all their adverts on television saying ‘We are there for you’, it makes me laugh.”
Wath’s story is far from unique. Indeed, the closure of thousands of bank branch in towns and villages have become so commonplace in recent years that an organisation established specifically to oppose them itself decided to shut down.
The Campaign for Community Banking Services folded 18 months ago and founder Derek French glumly explained that after 17 years of fighting against the trend there was simply no point continuing. “We don’t want people to think they can stop it. There’s no hope of changing anything,” he said.
When closures are announced, the banks involved may be different but the reason given is almost always exactly the same; a claim that branches are being used less as the popularity of online banking grows.
Both HSBC and Yorkshire Bank used this rationale for their Wath closures, while the same explanation has been offered in recent weeks by both Lloyds and Royal Bank of Scotland as they announced plans to shut more than 300 branches between them next year.
As part of the nationwide closure programmes, Lloyds are to shut branches in Pocklington, Hornsea, Ripon and Sheffield, while RBS and RBS-managed NatWest branches are to go in Cleakheaton, Heckmondwike, Penistone, Cottingham, Driffield, Hornsea, Hull, Richmond, Ripon, Pocklington and Whitby. A Halifax branch managed by Lloyds in Guiseley will also go.
Yorkshire Building Society also announced in November it is to shut branches in Bingley, Knaresborough, Meltham in Kirklees and Yeadon in Leeds.
But the idea that customers are abandoning visits to bank branches in favour of the internet gets short shrift in the streets of Wath.
Bob says: “We have to go to Wombwell now for banking. You queue for an hour to get served because that is the only branch there is. We have seen people go and walk away, there was an old lady who said to us, ‘It is the third time I have tried to get served in here’.
“I will never do online banking, I don’t trust it and I want to feel it is safe. Face-to-face is more secure. Everybody here feels the same. I don’t think it is people using online banking more, banks are forcing people to use it more.”
Irene says Wath’s two branches remained popular up until their closure last summer. “I can’t understand why they shut Yorkshire Bank, anybody who says there was nobody using it is talking a load of rubbish.”
A similar view is shared by 65-year-olds Ron and Alana Duffy, who say they believe recent shop closures in the village are connected with the loss of the bank branches. Ron says: “They have decimated the village – it used to be the Queen of Villages, now it is a tip. As soon as they shut the banks it was the death knell of the village. There are so many isolated people it is unbelievable.”
Alana says like many people locally, she is not interested in using internet banking and would rather travel to a branch. “I’m not IT-savvy and I don’t want to be.”
Ron adds: “These so-called experts don’t live in the real world. They sit in their ivory towers and all these little villages around this area, they are killing them off, one by one.”
Alana says fears for the future of Wath. “What is going to become of it? All we will have is charity shops, bookies and hairdressers.”
David Bowney, owner of David Bowney Quality Carpets just yards from where Yorkshire Bank used to stand, says it has had an impact on his business.
“The banks brought people in and people have gone elsewhere. Monday used to be our busiest day because everybody came to the bank first thing and then went shopping. We don’t get that passing trade anymore.”
Cate Ward has been selling clothes, shoes and cards for 30 years inside the Value for Money Market, which sits opposite the two former bank buildings. She was among the 1,200 people in Wath who signed a petition against the closure plans.
“It has had a big impact. I have to go to Barnsley, pay to park and go into the bank with my takings. You can’t do things online when you have cash in the till.
“When they announced the closures, I said ‘Why can’t the four banks get their act together’? They could get their act together when they needed to be bailed out. But they couldn’t to keep just one branch open in town. Each branch had four teller positions so they could have had one position for each bank. It would have been a saving for the branches but they said they still couldn’t afford to do that.
“One of my customers who I haven’t seen all year was in recently and she said the main reason was she used to come here to the bank but now doesn’t come to the village. I have lost her trade, not because she doesn’t like my stuff but because they have closed the branches.
“We are just going to become like every other small village where everything is shut down and there is going to be no community. Older people want to go out and chat, they might have been sat in all day. But things like this isolates people.
“They have changed the bus routes because there is fewer people coming in for the banks. So now there are less buses and less people. We are in a decline and nobody seems to want to do anything about it.”
Banks ‘offer support for closure-hit communities’
Banks and building societies have signed up to a protocol designed to minimise the impact of closures by helping customers find alternatives, such as using the Post Office.
The industry-wide Access to Banking Standard protocol was launched in 2015 and updated last summer. It has the support of the Government and the main high street banks.
Changes to the protocol included giving affected customers more notice of planned closures and greater clarity on the reasons for such decisions.
Stephen Jones, chief executive of UK Finance, said: “Banking is in the midst of a customer-led revolution with more people than ever before making use of digital innovation and alternative ways to bank to help manage their money on a daily basis.
“However, banks are very aware of the role branches play in the community and conscious that customers and businesses should not be left behind. That is why decisions to close branches are never taken lightly and why it remains important that customers continue to be able to access banking services if a local bank branch closes.”