Clouds gather as storm of branch closures picks up pace

September 21, 2015

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Campaigners flank Jane Hutt and Gwyn John, representatives of Llantwit Major

Campaigners flank Jane Hutt and Gwyn John, representatives of Llantwit Major

It was a late summer’s day in South Wales but although the sun shone outside, a storm was brewing inside the Town Hall of Llantwit Major.

“It’s discrimination against our generation,” said one elderly gentleman in the front row. “They never consider older people like me,” opined another.

Another town, another branch closure that excludes long standing residents and local businesses, and ignores both public opinion on the ground, and economic realities in the country.

One of almost 170 NatWest/RBS closures across the UK this year, Llantwit Major is a classic case study of why branch closures should not be happening – and how NatWest/RBS is pushing them through, against all evidence and moral sense.

“They’ve told us the branch only gets 64 regular users, but that’s nonsense. There is always a queue, the bank is always busy, but they’re closing it anyway,” said a member of the meeting. “What is a ‘regular user’ anyway? How do they define that?”

“My wife works in the NatWest here, and I know for a fact that’s not true,” said another. “You know that they collect all the cheques that have been deposited in that branch and process them in Cowbridge [a nearby, smaller town]. It eases the figures, makes it look like no one’s using it when they are.”

Local campaigner Paul outside the NatWest threatened with closure

Local campaigner Paul outside the NatWest threatened with closure

Accusations like this are commonplace. In another branch closure case in Nottinghamshire, NatWest/RBS claimed there were too few regular users for the branch to viable. Believing this to be false, local campaigners took it in turns to monitor branch and ATM usage, and found that over 400 customers a week were using the branch – a far greater number than NatWest had claimed.

The outrage in Llantwit Major is completely legitimate. The town numbers some 15,000 people, and it’s strategic location between Bridgend and the St Athan RAF base make it something of a regional hub, with visitors, residents and passers through feeding its vibrant small businesses.

But having lost its HSBC branch last year, the town now faces the closure of yet another branch – and fears becoming bankless altogether.

“It isn’t acceptable to simply tell customers they can go to Cowbridge to do their banking. This is going to have a huge impact on the town,” said Jane Hutt, the local Welsh Assembly Member who was hosting and chairing the meeting.

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The hall was buzzing with objections. People’s stories and experiences, rich in detail, explained why losing the NatWest would not only cause inconvenience, but also distress, financial exclusion, and the demise of local businesses.

“The more objections we can raise the more notice NatWest will have to take of us,” said Hutt. Sadly, she was only half right.

NatWest and RBS have become adept at brushing aside the concerns of their customers and local residents affected by branch closures – even in the face of overwhelming evidence that local residents need and want their branch, and despite further evidence that proves branch closures are bad for individuals, small businesses, and local economies at large.

Ultimately, branch closures are a national issue that demand a national response from central government. As Move Your Money have consistently argued, banks are commercial enterprises and it is legitimate for them to pursue profit. But they also operate essential services for the public that we rely on and cannot do with out.

One of those services is the maintenance of branches, and the provision of financial inclusion, small business lending, and the distributed funding and risk that comes with that.

NatWest & RBS are owned by the taxpayer, so it’s not right that they can steamroller over peoples’ needs and remove essential services at whim. Instead they should be made to work in the public interest.

But the only way that is going to happen is through co-ordinated public pressure on MPs and ministers of Government, by local groups like that in Llantwit Major.

And to succeed, such local groups need to link up with each other to share experience, best practice, and to mount a co-ordinated national response, rather than a series of isolated local protests.

“We will fight this closure every step of the way,” continued Jane Hutt. “But we will need each of you to do your bit.”

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