Small businesses and elderly people left in the cold by 2,000 bank closures in past decade

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The Independent Online

Britain's banks are abandoning hundreds of communities by closing almost three branches a week, leaving elderly customers and small businesses particularly hard hit.

This year, 140 branches have been closed or earmarked for closure, according to the Campaign for Community Banking Services. Of these, 63 are the last bank in town, forcing residents to travel for miles to use a cash machine or deposit their takings.

HSBC is the worst culprit, closing 68 branches this year. NatWest/RBS has closed 42 and Barclays 30. In the past 12 years 2,200 branches have shut.

Derek French of the campaign says: "Consumers need access to branches because online and telephone banking simply isn't suitable for many people. Banks should halt these branch closures now for the good of their customers and the community."

Residents of small Cumbrian town Appleby-in-Westmorland know what it's like to take on a banking giant. The town attracts thousands of tourists every year, who need access to cash machines to spend money in local shops and businesses. But HSBC has announced plans to close its branch, leaving only Barclays.

Local shopkeeper Susan Spence, 51, is helping with the campaign to stop the HSBC branch closing on 30 November. She accepts only cash payments at Allsorts and deposits her takings most days at HSBC. But from next month she will be forced to drive a 25-mile round trip to her nearest branch.

Residents have organised a petition with 2,000 signatures, equivalent to two-thirds of the residents. But Ms Spence says they have "met a brick wall". "I am going to switch to Barclays," she says. "The world's local bank has abandoned us, so we are going to abandon them."

A spokesman for HSBC, the only big bank not to promise to halt closures, said usage of the Appleby-in-Westmorland branch has fallen "very significantly over the past few years" and they are working with customers ahead of the closure.

It is not just local businesses that suffer when banks and cash machines disappear. Many vulnerable older people are cut off from financial services. Fiddly card-readers for making payments online are particularly problematic for people with dexterity problems, let alone those with no internet connection or with no means of travelling to other towns.

So why close branches? "A lot of branches targeted for closure are small with only a couple of staff who are kept very busy with routine transactions," Mr French says. "Staff don't have the time or expertise to sell products – which means the bank fails to generate as much income as bosses would like."

For some communities their local post office – if they still have one – may offer an alternative as there are now more of them in the UK than all the banks' branches.

From next spring all HSBC and First Direct customers will be able to withdraw or pay in cash and cheques and make balance enquiries at Post Office counters.

This leaves Santander as the only major bank not to allow customers access to accounts at a post office.

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