You can recognise them by their solidity. You could trust them with your money because they weren’t going anywhere. “Your savings are safe with us,” the stone pillars whispered as you entered the marble halls. “No-one can steal from our vaults,” the curlicued mouldings reassured. Feel the weight of this stone. Feel the thickness of our walls. The branches the banks built were there to endure.
But then they didn’t.
The UK had 20,583 bank branches in 1988 but only 8,837 by 2012, according to a House of Commons research brief (PDF). The closure of bank branches has left holes in the high street. The empty windows stare out at us unblinking. The steps of the hollow buildings now have a different function: shelters for the homeless.
It’s our own fault. We moved online to move our money about. You don’t need cash to buy something off ebay. You can shop using a debit or credit card. You can check your balance on your mobile. If you want a mortgage, you can fill in a series of tick-boxes. No longer do you have to impress the manager — who possibly knew your father and that you came from a fine, upstanding family, and therefore considered that you were unlikely to renege on the repayments. A credit-check agency will run an algorithm on your likelihood of running up bad debt. You don’t even need to queue up in a bank for cash: when was the last time you got it from anything other than a machine?
The financial crisis of 2008 is also to blame. The mergers that took place as a result — Lloyds acquired the Halifax, Virgin Money acquired Northern Rock, for example — meant that there were sometimes two branches of what was now the same bank on the same high street. Also, the crash and the lower profits that followed pushed the banks to look for ways to cut their costs.
The banks save a colossal sum from shutting their branches and making us do the work the bank tellers used to do. Yet we tend not to make a fuss about a bank closure unless it’s the last bank in the village. Unless we’re elderly, or less mobile. Unless we can’t whizz round in a car or have difficulties using the internet.
In 2015, the main high-street banks, consumer groups and the government came up with the Access to Banking protocol: an industry-wide agreement to minimise the impact of branch closures on rural locations, isolated customers, and small businesses.
Despite the fact that the banks were propped up by billions of pounds of taxpayers’ money, the government is unlikely to rouse itself about the issue. In June 2016,Harriett Baldwin, Economic Secretary to the Treasury, announced: “The Government believes that banks should act in the best interests of their customers and continue to serve the needs of the consumer as well as the wider economy. Although decisions on opening and closing branches are commercial ones, in which the Government does not intervene, it is imperative that the banks live up to the spirit, as well as the letter, of the commitments in the protocol.”
Banks living up to the spirit.
That’ll be fine, then. No need to worry. We’ll be fine.