PAYING THE PRICE: Helen says the closure of her local branch in Barry took away her independence
When Helen Miller moved from London to a popular seaside resort three years ago she hoped her life would become easier. Like many wheelchair users in the capital, she’d struggled to get about and felt exposed and vulnerable, especially when using cashpoints. She hated queuing up to withdraw money and worried about being mugged.
But at the HSBC branch in Barry, south Wales, the staff were friendly and access to a cash machine was easy. Helen, 50, who suffers from the painful disease ankylosing spondylitis, a rare type of spinal arthritis which makes it difficult for her to stand, loved the independence.
“I can walk a short way, say in and out of the doctors, but I need a wheelchair to go any distance,” says Helen. “We live about a mile from Barry so I used to enjoy going into town by myself. I’d get some cash and do a bit of shopping for things I wanted. It was just a nice thing for me to do.
“I could get into the branch pretty easily and use the machine there, so it all worked very well. I have an attachment for my wheelchair which makes it electric, so I can travel quite far. I get very tired so I can’t propel the wheelchair for long distances. It was all working out very well.”
However, her lone trips stopped last September when HSBC shut its Barry branch, causing a raft of logistical problems for Helen and husband,Adrian, 61, a former project manager for the BBC, just as they were settling into retirement.
“I liked the freedom of going into town on my own but the impact of the closure has taken that away from me,” she says. “I didn’t feel disabled before but I do now because I’ve pretty much lost my independence. Adrian has to drive me in our van to get money now and we have to plan the trip out a bit as well. We can go to Cardiff which is about ten miles away or to a Tesco store about four miles away but it’s not the same as it used to be.”
For millions like Helen, especially the elderly or disabled, it is becoming more and more of a struggle to find a local – and free to use – cash machine.
Since 2018, a quarter have vanished. Furthermore, a shocking new report from consumer champion Which? reveals that, in the past seven years, 4,685 bank branches have shut their doors.
SIGNS OF THE TIMES: Banks are shutting up shop across Britain
By the end of this year another 226 will have closed for good. All of which, experts say, is causing a cash crisis for many.
Cash was used in only 17 per cent of all payments in 2020 and the pandemic has increased the number of retailers refusing to accept it, a trend which suits younger, healthier and mobile people more able to cope with banking apps and digital accounts.
But the House of Commons library has produced a document which shows that 4.3 per cent of the UK population lives further than two kilometres from a bank or building society – a situation that will inevitably worsen as more branches close.
It may be one of the reasons why, according to research by the Financial Conduct Authority, an estimated 1.3 million UK adults are “unbanked” – living without a bank account.
“When they shut these branches, they just don’t think of all the problems it causes for people like me who need cash,” explains Helen. “If we’re out and about with our dogs I like to buy us an ice cream and it’s so much easier handing over cash from a wheelchair rather than trying to reach up and tap a machine.
“We like fish and chips on the seafront and they like to be paid in cash because the wi-fi isn’t good for the card machine and that suits us perfectly.
“Even in shops, it’s easier for wheelchair users to use cash. The counters can be quite high and so the staff have to unplug the little machines and pass them down. It all takes time and people behind in the queue sometimes tut. I don’t like hearing people tut. It’s awful for wheelchair users. Shopping should make you feel good, not bad.”
Helen thinks banks that close ATMs should offer a cash delivery service.
“It shouldn’t be any different than ordering a pizza,” she says. “You order and pay for a cash delivery online and it comes to your house via Uber or a similar service. It should be as easy as that.”
The Which? report reveals seven parliamentary constituencies – including parts of London, Liverpool, Sheffield and Bradford –
no longer have a single bank branch. Customers aged over 65 made up a quarter of those in the constituencies with poorest access to cash – and that’s the group that relies on it most, says the charity Age UK.
Which? found the rate of branch closures in rural areas has outstripped other areas.
Since 2015, the banking network in rural constituencies has been cut by half (50.7 per cent), compared with 47.3 per cent in urban areas.
The shrinking ATM network has compounded the problem and customers who rely on face-to-face banking services and cash to pay for everyday essentials are at risk of being “cut adrift”.
For people like EricWilliams, 90, who lives in Wiltshire, getting cash has become a nightmare. He worked until he was 80 as a handyman and window cleaner, but now suffers with arthritis and poor eyesight. “Being able to get my money is very important so I can pay people who come to my house to help me,” says Eric. “I have the hairdresser, toenail care, gardener and handyman who all insist on being paid in cash.”
For millions it is becoming more of a struggle to find a local – and free to use – cash machine
Before lockdown, a volunteer from Live At Home friendship and support service would accompany Eric to Sainsbury’s to help him shop and he would withdraw £300 cash to pay bills and helpers each month. During lockdown his groceries were delivered.
“I needed to have cash for that so I walked up to the corner shop to get cashback,” he says.”They only allow £50 per day, Monday to Friday, so I had to go there two to three times.The shop used to have a cash machine but it was removed because they said it was too expensive to run.
“Another option is to travel about a kilometre to the nearest cash machine. The bus I’d need only runs three times a day, so I have to wait for two hours for the return bus home. I only go in good weather because a strong wind could knock me over.
‘Being to get very I can who house “I do worry that I might be mugged. I’ve tried to do online shopping but I can’t see as well as I used to. I find it all a bit confusing.”
AGE UK Wiltshire has just helped Eric order a chequebook, but he knows his gardener will still ask for cash. “I don’t know what more can be done to help people like me, but more cash machines and a more frequent bus service would be very helpful,” he says.
The Government has previously said it will legislate to protect the future of cash, and Which? is calling for it to be prioritised. The organisation wrote to the Treasury explaining: “With rising living costs placing additional pressure on people’s personal finances, the consequences of being unable to withdraw cash for those consumers who already rely on it could be significant.”
The letter continues: “Unless legislation is introduced urgently, the ability to access, spend and deposit cash could be permanently lost for many consumers, leaving some of society’s most disadvantaged at risk of financial exclusion with no way to pay for the goods and services they need in their daily lives.”
The letter is backed by other organisations including Fairer Finance, the British Retail Consortium (BRC), StepChange Debt Charity, the Money and Mental Health Policy Institute and the Federation of Small Businesses (FSB).
FSB national chairman Martin McTague, who sits on the Access to Cash Pilots Board, said: “This is the last chance saloon where protecting access to cash is concerned.”
For people like Eric and Helen, their independence depends on it.
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The government must protect this vital lifeline
From the elderly to those living in more isolated communities, from small business owners to those on limited incomes, cash isn’t a relic of the past but a vital lifeline for millions of people across the country.
Their right to continue accessing it requires urgent protection. Protection, chiefly, from the slew of ATM and bank branch closures that have happened at a rapid rate in recent years.
Which?’s latest research found that almost a quarter of free-to-use ATMs have vanished since 2018 and almost half of the UK’s bank branches have closed since 2015.
That doesn’t just mean it’s harder to withdraw cash. Bank branches closing their doors makes things more difficult for customers who rely on face-to-face banking services to speak to bank employees.
While the banking industry has recently taken steps to introduce alternatives where bank branches are closed, such as shared banking hubs or Post Offices, these are voluntary and therefore subject to change based on commercial decisions made by individual banks. There is nothing to prevent banks from withdrawing from plans for alternative services at any point.
How, then, to fix the cash conundrum? The answer, Which? believes, lies in government legislation. It’s been two years since the Chancellor said he would introduce laws to protect cash by ensuring every community has a certain level of access enshrined in law. Since then ATM and bank branch numbers have been cut to the bone – demonstrating why this legislation is so desperately needed.
The Government must make good on its promise to protect the millions who rely on cash by introducing legislation ensuring they can use it for as long as it is needed.