Barclays to abandon village life and close down 172 branches

In a little under three weeks today, Barclays Bank is to close 172 branches, leaving dozens ofrural communities and suburban commuter villages without banking facilities.

The ruthless cull is part of a long-term strategy designed to save the bank - which made £2.5bn pre-tax profits last year, - more than £1bn over the next three years. One in 11 of the bank's 1,900 branches will be closed on 7 April.

The move also heralds a new trend in the industry, as Barclays intends to focus on internet and telephone banking. Barclays said that it now had 700,000 online customers, with customers switching to the internet service at a rate of 4,000 per day. The percentage of customers regularly using their branches had fallen from 56 per cent to 36 per cent in under five years.

However, the widespread outrage at the bank's actions has continued unabated. In a Commons debate, Alan Beith, the Liberal Democrat MP, said he has pleaded in vain with Barclays to defer the closures until it could assess a pilot scheme, started in Cornwall this week, to deliver basic banking through 270 post offices. Chris Mullin, an Environment Minister, urged the bank's customers to "vote with their feet".

At Terrington St Clement in Norfolk, the Reverend Mike Bossingham, a Methodist minister, has led his flock to a sit-in at the branch, which is due to be shut. Armed with flasks of coffee, six customers remain holed up, determined to show the Dunkirk spirit.

"We have all tried writing to Barclays and making our feelings known in the proper way, with no response, so we feel we have no choice but to make this peaceful protest," Dr Bossingham said. "We are not expecting the bank to stay open indefinitely but it should do so until the village had been given a suitable alternative."

The situation at Terrington St Clement, which has a population of 3,000, is mirrored elsewhere. Reeth, Swaledale, in the Yorkshire Dales, is also due to lose its Barclays branch. Residents will have to travel 10 miles to Leyburn for the nearest facilities.

The bank closure comes in the wake of the village shop shutting. John Blackie, the North Yorkshire councillor for the Upper Dales, said: "For local people it appears the pillars of village infrastructure are tumbling down."

In the Surrey commuter villages of Oxshott and Thames Ditton, traders feel it is their businesses which will sufferif Barclays carries out its plans to shut two branches.

The traders fear that because there will be no local banking facilities available, residents will abandon local stores and head for supermarkets in nearby Surbiton.

Local anger has been fuelled by a promise made by Barclays last October when itchanged the opening time of the Thames Ditton branch from 10am to 1pm, claiming this would save the branch.

Residents feel badly let down. Brenda Carr has put up a slogan, "Another Nail In The Coffin", at the window of her antiques shop. "This is bound to have a detrimental effect on us," she said.

Tanja Crimi, who owns the village bakery, said: "It's going to kill off Thames Ditton. I feel especially sorry for the elderly, who will find it especially difficult." Shahid Dar, a post office worker said: " I am a Barclays customer and it is going to be difficult. But it is the old people we should worry about."

Barclays, whose profits increased by 30 per cent last year, refused yesterday to reveal the branches that it plans to close.

A spokesman said that it was "not in the company's interests" to provide such information. She said that the company was simply reflecting public moves towards online banking. "This wasn't decided suddenly and arbitrarily. All our figures show that our customers want to bank with us in a different way," she said.

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