More than 500 free cash machines are being ripped out every month, starving communities of cash to spend in local shops.
Following a Mail on Sunday call to arms, cash machine network group Link has pledged to invest £5 million to install 250 ATMs this year.
And now the Government has pledged to inject £1 billion of taxpayers’ cash into supporting run-down high streets. But is this a genuine lifeline – or just a gimmick that lets banks of the hook?
The Ruddle family says banks must do all they can to support communities
Bungay: Fury as banks move out
The historic market town of Bungay in Suffolk has survived several disasters over the centuries. There was the apparition of ‘Black Shuck’ – a mythical hellhound that attacked and killed locals in 1577.
Then in 1688 a great fire ripped through the town centre and almost destroyed it.
So you might think the loss of a cash machine was not such a big deal. You would be wrong. The last bank – a Lloyds – turned its back on the town in May 2018, pulling out its cash machine as it fled.
It was just one of five banks – including an HSBC, Barclays and NatWest – to pull the plug on Bungay in the previous decade.
The town is far from alone in losing its bank branches. Nationwide, they are being axed at the rate of about 55 a month – with a third of branches (3,300) closing down since 2015.
Tracy Jackson, owner of Pet Food Plus More shop, has witnessed a dramatic decline in visitors that she blames on banks that have deserted the town.
She says: ‘In the past two years footfall has almost halved. It is devastating for locals and businesses.
‘Banks tell us we all want to bank online – but this is absolute nonsense. It is just an excuse so they can save money by shutting branches down.’
Bungay still has a cash machine in the post office – but it is only available during working hours. The local Bungay Council has just pledged to install a free 24-hour machine outside its office building this year.
This follows an agreement by Link to fund the hole-in-the-wall after a council plea for help.
Although she welcomes this initiative, Tracy is disappointed by the separate £1 billion Government pledge to support communities, which she believes will not help towns like Bungay – or force banks to reopen – because it will focus on 14 different run-down towns across Britain.
Communities fear the consequences of banks deserting their towns and removing ATMs
And the Government pledge provoked fury from Jenny Ruddle, who was out cycling with her builder husband Ben, 46, and their children Bronwen, five, and Marlin, two.
Jenny, 38, says: ‘We should not be injecting more taxpayer money into communities to ensure banks and ATMs remain in towns.
Our manifesto to make banks listen
- Every town should have at least one bank
- Every town should have a free cash machine
- Every town should have a post office
- For smaller communities without a bank, post office or free cash machine, ‘cashback’ facilities must be offered for free at local shops and pubs
- A regulator must take charge to ensure that there is free access to cash for everyone who wants it
‘We bailed banks out a decade ago in the banking crisis and they have a moral duty to support communities who make them money. I fear children will now grow up not understanding the true value of cash if they are unable to get access to bank-notes and coins. This would be disastrous for our society.’
In the shadow of the ruin of Bungay Castle – an even earlier town disaster, when Earl of Norfolk Hugh Bigod’s stronghold was destroyed when he rebelled against King Henry II in 1174 – is Jesters café.
Its owner Keith Thomson welcomes the arrival of a new cash machine but believes banks must be forced to do far more.
He says: ‘These banks should never have been allowed to leave. We do not want the Government to waste £1 billion of taxpayers’ money to help struggling town centres do better – they need to get tough with banks and order them to support their communities.’
Halesworth: Call for a Government rethink
The market town of Halesworth lies ten miles south of Bungay. Once – in 1799 – the Suffolk and Halesworth Bank issued its own five guinea banknotes (£5.25). But this bank has long since been consigned to history, along with branches of Lloyds and Barclays – which both shut up shop in 2018.
Now all the community gets is a thrice-weekly visit from a Lloyds van – forced on the community because, according to the bank, ‘customers were increasingly moving to online services’.
Retired farm manager Julian Askew needs two sticks to stand erect as he waits patiently in the freezing cold of the public car park for the Lloyds bank van to arrive.
The 78-year-old is not amused at having to rely on a part-time mobile service. He says: ‘It is a bloody disgrace. We need a bank and not a van.
The next nearest branch is in Beccles – more than ten miles away and half an hour in a car.’
There is a cash machine in the high street post office and a branch of Ipswich Building Society – but no banks or 24-hour ATM access.
Part-time carer Kingsley Elliff is sorry banks quit the town leaving customers stranded, but feels the solution is more social support for the elderly – and that the Government needs to step in.
The 66-year-old says: ‘There are lots of people who need social care – and are not interested in the internet but want to bank face-to-face. I believe Boris Johnson would be better off offering support to people who are perhaps elderly, vulnerable and lonely. Banks may have failed them yet society can still offer help – perhaps also showing the benefits of technology.’
Villages are losing their access to cash and services as ATMs are closed across the country
Instead, the Government’s £1 billion pledge will focus more on enticing new shops and businesses into town centres to boost employment in areas such as Accrington, Hartlepool and Coventry.
In Halesworth, there is a can-do attitude with small businesses fighting back against the bank closures by using social media service WhatsApp to run a ‘change exchange’. Anyone running low of cash in their tills can use it to ask other shops if they can swap banknotes for coins.
Carina Whale, owner of The Halesworth Florist, says: ‘We must adapt to changing demands in the high street to survive. Banks may no longer care about customers but we certainly do. We try to listen to what they want – and this is what the Government now needs to do.’
The experts’ view: A few cash machines are not enough
Following our campaign to improve access to cash, the network group Link agreed in October to set aside £1 million to install 50 cash machines for communities abandoned by banks and the post office – most of which are planned for this year.
Thanks to us highlighting the plight of thousands of communities suffering with the loss of their ATM it has agreed to inject a further £4 million into the campaign in 2020 – to provide 250 towns and villages with free access to cash.
But despite the encouraging move, critics fear installing the new machines is little more than a public relations exercise.
More cash machines close or are removed than are opened every year
There are thousands of communities – such as Halesworth – that will not benefit from this £5 million initiative. And although 250 ATMs are being provided, twice that number closes in just one month.
Ron Delnevo, director of the ATM Industry Association, says: ‘This is just the tip of the iceberg and opening a few cash machines will do nothing to stop the huge number of closures that communities suffer every month.
The real problem is that the fee banks earn every time someone uses a cash machine is being cut. It is becoming less economically viable for banks to keep them open.’
Each time a consumer uses their debit card at a free-to-use ATM that does not belong to the bank that issued their card, an ‘interchange fee’ is paid by that bank to the cash machine operator.
This used to be 25p per withdrawal but is gradually being reduced to 20p in 2021, meaning many high street cash machines will no longer be profitable.
There are 48,000 free cash machines in Britain. Down from 54,600 at the start of last year
Delnevo’s concerns are echoed by the Association of Convenience Stores – which also believes lowering the interchange fee damages shops because it makes running free ATMs hard to sustain. Delnevo and the ACS believe the Government must return the fee to 25p to support communities.
There are about 48,000 free cash machines in Britain, down from 54,600 at the start of last year.
The only winners from bank and ATM closures are the banks themselves – increasing their annual billion-pound profits.
Critics are all in agreement that rather than forcing smaller businesses and customers to pay for the damage that bank greed has caused, these financial giants should be held to account – forced to dip into their profits to support communities across the country by keeping services running.
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