By Ruth Lythe
PUBLISHED: 18:06 EST, 18 September 2012 | UPDATED: 05:15 EST, 19 September 2012
Banks closed down one branch every 48 hours last year, the latest figures reveal.
High Street giants NatWest, HSBC, Barclays, Santander and Lloyds TSB axed 178 branches in 2011 — one in four of these closures left a town without a bank.
In many cases, the branches shut were in small rural communities where the next nearest bank is dozens of miles away.
Let down: Kathryn Fairs outside the closed HSBC branch in Woodhall Spa
More than 1,200 towns and large villages in the UK have been left without a bank and 900 have just one branch left, according to a report by the Campaign For Community Banking.
‘These closures often strike at the heart of rural communities,’ says Derek French, spokesman for the group.
‘It’s not just elderly or disabled people who can’t travel far or use the internet who are affected by these closures. Local businesses are some of these branches’ most loyal customers.
‘By forcing them to travel miles to do their banking, you are causing them more expense and complication during what are already tough times.’
Nearly a quarter of branches that were open five years ago have since shut. Banks justify the closures by saying the branches are not well used, and that they need to slash staff costs and push customers on to online banking. However, nearly one in six British households still does not have access to the internet.
HSBC has got rid of the most branches, closing 386 since the start of 2002. It is followed by Lloyds TSB, which has closed 354, and Barclays, which has shut 162.
HSBC has slashed 47 branches this year alone, despite raking in profits of £8.1 billion over the same period.
Eleven of these shut branches were the only bank left in town. Communities affected include Woodhall Spa in Lincolnshire, which was home to the Dambuster Squadron in World War II. Last month, it lost its HSBC branch along with its two cash machines.
The move means locals and the 50 or more independent shops and businesses that line the High Street are unable to pay in or withdraw cash without making a six-mile drive to their nearest bank branch in Horncastle.
There is only an intermittent bus service there, and a return trip costs £3.90.
Kathryn Fairs, 49, who runs The Book Fayre in Woodhall Spa, fears she risks losing out on business because customers will be unable to withdraw cash to spend locally.
She believes the bank has been trying to siphon business from its branch for some time. A year ago, her son George, 17, tried to open a bank account in the town, but was instead directed to Horncastle.
Disappointed: Annwen Hughes runs a delicatessen opposite the HSBC branch in Criccieth, north-west Wales, which closes next week
‘The bank says it wasn’t getting enough customers and needed to close,’ she says.
‘But, in fact, it has been a self- fulfilling prophecy — they were turning away people a year ago.
‘It’s going to be inconvenient for so many people. I really believe no community should be left without a banking facility.
‘If you have a business, you are going to have to find someone to cover you while you go to the nearest branch or you will have to close the shop. If you are elderly, you are going to have to find someone to take you to Horncastle.’
HSBC says it plans to install a cash machine in the village, but is awaiting planning permission from the local council.
A bank spokesman says that it closes the only bank left in a town only when there is no commercial alternative.
‘We do need to ensure that our branches are in the right locations for our customers,’ he says.
‘On occasions, this means that we need to close some branches where customer footfall has fallen dramatically. Habits are changing and many people choose to have the 24-hour convenience of using a cash machine, the internet, telephone or mobile phone banking.’
More communities are facing being left without a local bank. Residents and small business owners in Criccieth, north-west Wales, say they are bewildered and angry after losing their fight to keep their only bank.
When HSBC closes its doors next week, customers will have to make a five-mile drive to their nearest branch in Porthmadog.
Criccieth will also lose one of its cash machines, sparking fears that tourists to the pretty seaside town will cut back on spending because they can’t easily withdraw cash. ‘People are upset and disappointed,’ says Annwen Hughes, 52, who runs a delicatessen opposite the bank.
‘I’ll have to find cover or close the shop while I go to the nearest bank. It’s going to be tough for older people who can’t drive — they will have to make special arrangements to do their banking.’
HSBC is closing two other Welsh branches this month — Nefyn, also in north-west Wales, and St Clears in Pembrokeshire.
Meanwhile, HSBC has unveiled plans to allow its debit card holders to check their balances, withdraw cash and pay money into their current accounts through 11,500 Post Office branches.
The majority of banks already allow withdrawals and balance checks through Post Offices, but not all allow you to pay cash into your account.
Consumer groups welcomed the move, but warned the banks should not axe more branches as a result. They also highlight the fact the Post Office network has shed more than 1,600 branches in the past four years. However, the Post Office has vowed not to close any more branches in rural areas.
‘It would be appalling if banks start to use the fact you can use your current account at your Post Office as a reason to cut branches,’ says Simon Rose, spokesman for campaign group Save Our Savers.
Age UK’s charity director general Michelle Mitchell adds: ‘Customers need to open and close accounts and do other banking tasks not routinely possible at the Post Office.’
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