Douglas Ross: Bank closures forced cashless society on parts of Scotland

The cashless society has already arrived for some, writes Moray MP Douglas Ross

There are few communities across Scotland that have been unaffected by the closure of a High Street bank or building society in recent years.

In fact, research by consumer group Which? suggested as many as one third of branches shut their doors between 2010 and 2018.

That amounts to 610 in total – in addition to 200 ATM machines that have also disappeared.

For some in our larger urban areas, this may be brushed aside as a sign of the times. More and more people are banking online and rarely carry cash around with them.

However, in more rural areas like my constituency of Moray, it is a different story altogether.

Many homes still don’t have access to superfast broadband, which can make online banking difficult, while local businesses still need somewhere to deposit cash as the end of the day or week.

In many places, people are finding that there may not be a bank left at all.

This issue will come under the spotlight tomorrow in a Westminster Hall debate that I have secured to ask what happens when the last branch in town closes.

In particular, I want to ask questions as to what level of government intervention is appropriate.

Just how much is the UK Government doing already – and should it do more?

I have been working to secure this debate since November last year, when Bank of Scotland announced it was closing its local branches in Lossiemouth and Keith.

In the case of Lossiemouth, it was the last bank in town.

This is a coastal town that is growing, thanks to £400m of UK Government investment at the local RAF base that will mean more than 400 extra personnel and their families moving to the area.

In total, my constituency has lost 16 branches – either already shut or planning to close – since 2015.

A massive implication of this has been the removal of cash machines at the same time.

This past weekend was the first in Lossiemouth since the Bank of Scotland closed and there was no cash in the other remaining cash machines in the town.

We are no longer talking hypothetically about a cashless society – in many places we are already at that point.

This should be deeply concerning.

The erosion of local services – particularly in rural areas – has already left many communities feeling dislocated.

The loss of access to cash inevitably affects the more vulnerable in society more – as does the loss of human interaction at the local bank branch.

I think the UK Government can and should do more.

I was elected as a Scottish Conservative MP and I am in post to stand up for my constituents. If that means challenging the government on issues like this, I will not hesitate to call for more action.

I understand the argument that these are commercial decisions for the companies involved.

But that only holds water up to a point.

When places the size of Lossiemouth (population 7,700 and rising) are left without a bank or building society and people are unable to withdraw money, there is a strong argument for intervention.

I think the government should treat the situation differently when we are talking about the last branch in town.

The banks have been talking up the benefits of mobile banking services as an alternative.

However, experience shows this is nothing like an adequate replacement for a bricks and mortar branch.

I have heard complaints that the vans don’t appear often enough and are not in place long enough.

And again, for older residents, it can involve a long walk and a wait outside in all weathers to get in to talk to a member of staff.

I can understand why this system appeals to the banks. They are drastically reducing the cost of delivering these services, but I am not convinced the level of service for customers meets the grade.

There also needs to be a proper evaluation of banking hubs.

This is the idea that several banks could share facilities within a single building.

It has been touted as an option by many of my parliamentary colleagues at Westminster, whose constituencies have also been hit by branch closures.

So far, in my own dealings with the banks, it has been met with a disappointing response.

I think this is something that we should explore properly to assess if this is viable and workable.

In theory, it makes sense, particularly in places where bank buildings are lying empty.

However, it has to work commercially if it is going to last.

And there has to be buy-in from local communities. People would have to use these branches to ensure they are not lost.

I believe the public will respond positively, we just need the banks to do likewise.

There is also a moral issue in terms of the UK taxpayer bailout of Lloyds and RBS in 2008. The public purse suffered huge losses when the shareholdings were sold back many years later.

People feel, rightly, that they have done their bit.

They should not now be left out in the cold.