Bonfire of the bank branches as HSBC shuts 27 per cent. Is what's left capable of serving the 20m who don't bank online?

The number of people using branches is falling sharply, but Which? is right to highlight the plight of those who either don't want to or who aren't able to use internet banking

HSBC has been closing branches at a rapid rate
HSBC has been closing branches at a rapid rate

The latest Which? report on bank branches has found that they may soon become an endangered species in many areas, if they aren't already.

The closure rate over the last couple of years among the big four ranged from Barclays’ 8 per cent of its network to more than a quarter of HSBC’s.

Given the rapid decline in footfall, perhaps the only real surprise to come from it is that it wasn’t even higher.

But here’s the thing: The report contains an equally important figure that has got rather less attention than HSBC’s 27 per cent branch closure rate.

It is that while 56 per cent of British adults used online banking this year, 44 per cent did not. That translates into 20m adults. A minority, for sure, but a very significant one.

There are all sorts of reasons for the choice people in that minority have made to stay offline. They might not feel terribly comfortable about banking online, which is understandable given the ever present danger of cyber crime. They might not have the sort of broadband connectivity that makes online banking convenient, a particular problem in rural areas where branches are often hardest to find. They might be elderly, or have a disability that makes transacting online a struggle. The list goes on.

The question then becomes whether these people are being adequately served in areas where branches are hard to find (or are likely to become hard to find). Are banks doing enough to cater for their needs?

Which? says the picture is decidedly mixed. It’s not true to say that there aren’t examples of good practice to be found and the Nationwide Building Society, for example, hasn’t closed any branches over the last two years. It even opened a new one in Glastonbury, which more usually makes headlines for its music festival, after Lloyds closed its branch following hot on the heels of Barclays and HSBC.

But there are just as many examples of bad practice, and while there are protocols in place that banks are supposed to follow before closing a branch, they don’t always do a terribly good job when it comes communicating with customers.

Post Office branches are often cited as an alternative for those who don’t want to bank online after closures have been carried out, but that is an institution that has itself gone through change. It has introduced self service arrangements in some outlets, put others into WH Smiths.

Which? found, just as did Professor Russel Griggs, who led an independent review of banks’ closure protocols, that many people find these changes frustrating. Still more are simply unaware of the range of banking services Post Offices can offer. Small wonder, if they aren’t being promoted effectively (and Which? suggests that they aren’t).

Banking in modern Britain is an essential service. It is on a par with utilities such as water or energy. Without an account, you’ll find it hard to pay bills from the latter pair. You won’t be able to access state benefits. You won’t be able to get paid.

While it is pointless to criticise the industry for closing branches that aren’t used, it is entirely appropriate to ask whether what is replacing them is fit for purpose and can effectively serve the needs of at least 20m people.

The Which? report suggests that banks are too often behaving like, well, banks. Given the billions of pounds injected into the sector to keep it afloat during the financial crisis, the public has every right to expect better. And to ask whether a firmer hand isn’t needed to get that.

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