Last bank in town? Shut it down, say Barclays and then RBS. But locals say No

As more and more communities lose their banking facilities, customers hit by the closure of their village's Barclays are being urged to fight back, as Samantha Downes reports

Last week the taxpayer-owned bank RBS revealed it is closing 44 branches, 14 of which are the last bank in the community. The closures are a slap in the face for local customers, as the bank pledged in 2010 not to close such branches.

The move follows February's announcement by Barclays that it is planning to close around 400 of its 1,600 UK branches.

The scandal-hit bank, one of the first to seek emergency funding from the Bank of England at the beginning of the financial crisis, claimed that most of its customers were using mobile phones and the internet for banking rather than going into branches.

Although Barclays has yet to announce all of the branches it plans to close, the move has been widely reported as being a blow for rural communities and in particular the bank's elderly customers, many of whom rely on their local branches to cash cheques and deposit savings.

But it's not just elderly customers or rural areas that will be affected by the cuts. The Independent has discovered that one of the UK's e-commerce hotspots, which came third in a Google survey of the country's e-commerce activity, could be left with no bank following the decision.

Local businesses in the village of Stansted, Essex, which has a population of around 8,000, are threatening to close their accounts with the bank and urge others affected to do the same.

Local councillors from all political parties are joining forces to try to force the bank into rethinking its decision to close the branch, which has been in the village for over 200 years, on 20 June. Councillor Geoffrey Sell said they are also urging local share- holders to attend the bank's AGM this month.

He said: "Barclays' annual general meeting is on 24 April, at the Royal Festival Hall in London. We are urging anyone who is a Barclays shareholder in the village to do what they are entitled to do: that is attend and ask questions of the board of directors.

"It's ridiculous that they are planning to close the branch in Stansted at this time. The Barclays chairman writes in the annual report that he is pleased they are progressing in starting to rebuild trust. The report contains the strapline that Barclays is the 'go-to bank'. Well, as the notice in their window clearly states, Stansted customers are being asked to go to either branches in Bishop's Stortford, Sawbridgeworth or Saffron Walden."

The closure of Barclays in Stansted is the last straw for many businesses, because both NatWest and Lloyds have already deserted the village. Alan Dean, chairman of the parish council, said: "There is a post office in Stansted, albeit it's now situated in one of the local shops. We did have a larger sub-post office, but it closed a few years ago. It will have trouble coping with extra demand as there is not much space there."

Locals claim that far from being a backwater branch, the Stansted Barclays is always busy and is essential to help businesses run smoothly. Mr Dean said: "The population has grown in the last 10 to 15 years from 6,000 to around 8,000; also there are 500 new homes planned in Elsenham, the next village, as well as 200 more in Stansted." Councillor Jonathan Rich said: "Barclays' decision to close such an important community facility in such a large and swiftly expanding area is a very disappointing one. I cannot help but feel that their business case for doing so is flawed. Every business that depends on Barclays in Stansted, but doesn't bank there, should write to the branch, asking about whether moving their account there might change their mind."

The local business group is deciding what action to take, such as boycotting the bank and teaming up with customers affected by closures of branches across the UK.

Mr Dean said many businesses rely on the night-safe facility the bank offers.

He said: "We will be asking Barclays if they can reconsider their decision so that even if the building, which has now been leased to Sainsbury's, is no longer a bank, Barclays has at least some presence in the village.

"By all means remodel the bank, but don't just walk away, otherwise your customers will walk away too."

The union Unite, which represents Barclays staff, published a poll last year which showed that bank customers preferred fully staffed branches. Dominic Hook, Unite national officer, said: "The poll points to a backlash against the march of the machines in bank branches across the UK, with two-thirds saying they want more staff in branches.

"Research shows the significant reputational damage the banks will suffer if they ignore the needs of their customers.

"Barclays customers don't want to see empty, soul-less branches. There are serious questions about what this reduction in staff numbers will do to customer service."

Irene East, a spokesperson for Barclays, said the decision had been taken based on a reduction in the number of customers using the bank over a number of years. She said: "We are constantly reviewing the way we work to ensure we can deliver a service that is shaped around the way customers are choosing to carry out their banking."

Sainsbury's will take over the branch. "This will ensure that an ATM remains in place so that consumers continue to have access to cash," said Ms East.

This week's shock news from RBS should encourage customers of that bank to leave, said Charlotte Webster, campaign director of Move your Money. "RBS is no place to hold an account, and it's time to move your money to a local or mutual provider if you haven't done so already. There are plenty of better options out there," she said.

Other banks claim they are committed to rural and local branches. TSB's chief of branch banking, Peter Navin, said: "Our competitors are closing branches, but we're bucking the trend and looking to expand, to focus on serving local customers across the country." Lloyds has committed to maintaining its 2,200-strong national network until the end of the year, but may consider closures after that. The Co-op Bank is considering shedding about 50 branches as it tries to raise more money to plug the £1.5bn black hole in its finances.

'WE'VE BEEN USING OUR BRANCH SINCE WE GOT MARRIED 60 YEARS AGO'

Marion and Edward Pretty have been banking at the Stansted branch for 60 years. "We've been using it since we got married", they say.

Marion's grandparents also banked at the branch, as did her parents. She said: "Having the bank in the village has been a real benefit to us and to the community. I know most of the local businesses actually switched to Barclays when the other banks left the village."

Although Marion, who is 81, and her husband, who is 83, are fit and active, she admits they don't relish having to visit the nearest Barclays when the Stansted branch closes.

"It's in Bishops Stortford which is three miles away. That will mean a much longer round trip for us. I don't bank online or use cash machines so we will have to drive there but parking is notoriously difficult. We can't really rely on using the post office, as it is far too small.

"Every time we go in the Barclays it's crowded, so why are they closing it?"

Lino Bottalico, who owns the local hairdresser's Lino Thoma, expanded his business late last year and said he will "almost certainly" close his account with Barclays if the branch shuts.

He added: "We've been banking with Barclays for 10 years and we make use of the night safe. That's the worry, especially for businesses who hold a lot of cash rather than carrying out business via card transactions."

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