Britain's smallest town furious at being robbed of its bank

`Uneconomic' branches are being closed.
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The Independent Online
It Has all the ingredients of a thriller. A former SAS man takes up position in a pub car park. Across the road is a bank. The SAS man's steely eyes focus on the door. He looks at his watch. It is 10am.

For the next four-and-a-half hours our hero keeps up his covert surveillance. He counts the people going in and coming out. When the bank shuts, he lets out a sigh of triumph. His clipboard shows 93 people used the bank that day. Barclays said the figure would be 20.

The bank in question is the Barclays branch in Llanwrtyd Wells in Powys, Mid-Wales, whose main claim to fame is that it is officially listed as the smallest town in Britain, with just under 700 inhabitants. It is the only bank in the town and it is to close next Friday, meaning local people who want banking services will have to travel to Builth Wells, 13 miles away.

The decision, which has infuriated locals who are resisting it determinedly, is part of a larger pattern of social disruption: just as the sub-post offices have been disappearing from the villages, so banks are starting to vanish from the small towns.

According to BIFU (the Banking, Insurance and Finance Union), banks have shut down 2,500 branches since 1990.

"We are campaigning against these closures. So often it's because the branches aren't making enough profit," said BIFUs spokesperson, Heather Tilston. "We say the huge profits the banks make should enable them to run these branches as a community service without the greed motive coming in every time.

"Often it's quite appalling the way they do it without any consultations. It really puts the skids under the local community, not only in rural areas but inner cities as well."

BIFU's Welsh representative, Steve Pantek said: "We are supporting the people at Llanwrtyd. Barclays has this cavalier attitude to local people. They have pulled out of many communities in Wales leaving appalling hardship. They don't seem to care."

The British Bankers Association denies that there is a hidden agenda for banks to close down branches and move business to the bigger centres. But its head of communications, Roger Miles, agrees there is a redistribution of banking services taking place.

Mr Miles says that this change is in accord with customers' requirements. More people nowadays did their bank business by telephone or card and did not have the need for contact with staff. Mr Miles added: "Some people prefer to do their banking on this sort of impersonal basis."

Not in Llanwrtyd Wells they don't. Gordon Green, one-time TA reservist with the SAS, runs the Neuadd Hotel across from the bank, and was determined to disprove Barclays' contention that the branch was under-used, by only 20 people a day. "My own eyes told me this was nonsense," Mr Green says. "So I simply watched and counted to get an accurate figure. I told Barclays they were lying. They huffed and puffed and said they didn't like being called liars, but my figure of 93 was definitely accurate."

He adds: "Barclays has pulled the rug from under our feet by closing. We're not going to get tourists coming here if they can't draw out money. It really is critical. There are about 50 businesses in the town, and many of them are running on a knife-edge. The closure will destroy the town's economy."

Another former soldier, Col Tim Van Rees, a solicitor, is also involved in the battle. "It's very sinister," he says. "It will destroy the local community which a lot of us have worked very hard to build up. If they get away with it here, where will they do it next? I think it's the thin edge of the wedge. There are lots of small towns around Mid-Wales. Are they going to pull out of those places as well?"

Llanwrtyd's mayor, Pat Clarke, who leads the 12-strong town council at its meetings, is just as angry. He is calling for a boycott of Barclays and urging account holders to change to other banks. He says: "It's appalling. The bank chiefs are so arrogant. There have been no consultations. They simply stuck a notice in their window saying they were shutting down.

"We may be the smallest town in Britain, but not many towns have our venom. We are ready to fight them if they go ahead."

The local people are quick to point out that the first provincial bank in Britain was founded about 200 years ago at Llandovery, a few miles down the road. This was to obviate the need for cattle drovers to carry large sums of money after driving herds to London, and selling them at Smithfield.

Barclays spokesman Nick Cobban says: "It is not a decision we took lightly. Basically, it was for two reasons. The branch at Llanwrtyd was not being sufficiently used. Indeed, many townspeople don't use the branch. Staff were twiddling their thumbs most of the time they were open.

"The second reason is that the building we lease is old and not suitable for installing computer terminals and other equipment needed for modern banking.

"If the local people are unhappy about lack of consultations, we may look again at the circumstances and perhaps meet them to explain."

That meeting may come soon. Angry townsfolk have already decided on the next move of their campaign, which takes place tomorrow. They have hired coaches to take them to Cardiff, where they plan to demonstrate at Barclays' Welsh headquarters.

Col Van Rees is looking forward to the fray. He said: "We might not draw the bayonets on this occasion, but we'll certainly let them know how we feel."

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