The posh North London suburb of Highgate might not be the first place which springs to mind when you think of a ‘cash desert’.
Certainly there’s no shortage of money around, and it’s no rural hamlet, left behind high street or down on its luck seaside town.
But, despite the parade of upmarket and independent shops and cafes and the frequent traffic running through it, it appears to be cashless. At least it is in the eyes of the people who live here, who have called for help.
Ian Vernon, Link’s head of commercial initiatives, and Lady Margaret Bloom, an academic and nearby resident who also sits on the cash network’s ‘consumer council’, in Highgate
And help seemingly has arrived, in the form of a man who has come down on a Wednesday afternoon on the train from Leicester. The man, Ian Vernon, is from Link, which oversees the country’s increasingly creaking cash network.
His and his team’s job is to look into the thousands of requests from communities up and down the country, like Highgate, which want a free-to-use ATM.
The scheme which delivers them has been running since October 2019, with the first 20 ‘winning’ locations announced that December. In total, around 60 cash machines have been installed as far afield as Durness, on the north coast of Scotland, and Cornwall.
But that pales in comparison to the number of requests, with an acceptance rate of as little as 1.7 per cent.
Rejection can be for any number of reasons. In some cases it’s as simple as the fact there are already machines within a kilometre, the metric the ‘request an ATM’ scheme often uses.
‘We have had requests from people within 500m or even 200m of a free-to-use machine’, Ian said, ‘people don’t always realise what they’ve got on their doorstep. A lot of our job is to inform people.’
And before any of them are installed, it is the task of Ian and his team to traipse up and down the streets of Britain and work out whether these cries for help can be answered.
The pandemic curtailed things somewhat, so they have been out and about a lot more recently, but he says they have caught up with the backlog.
The outline of a former cash machine which disappeared when Highgate’s last bank branch closed
Which is what has brought him to North London. Highgate, he told This is Money ahead of his trip, is proof ‘any area can be impacted by ATM removals or conversions into pay-to-use machines, or just absence in the first place.’
Some 6,500 free-to-use cash machines have disappeared, either through converting to paid-for options because they’re too costly to run otherwise or by being shuttered, since the start of 2019, according to Link.
Moreover the area, despite its relative busyness, even on a weekday afternoon, is bank branchless.
In testament to its absence, the outline of a now cash machine is still visible on the outside of a former branch.
Per Link’s ATM locator app, the nearest free source of cash is a small Sainsbury’s 0.6m away. Green locations are free, purple paid-for ATMs and red represents Post Offices
The nearest source of free cash, per Ian’s ATM locator app which also includes Post Offices, is from a small Sainsbury’s 0.6 miles, or just under 1km away.
As the three of us, Ian, myself, and Lady Margaret Bloom, a visiting professor at King’s College London who sits on Link’s consumer council and is also a fairly local resident, make our way towards it, one thing becomes apparent: Highgate is very, very hilly.
As we walk through suburban side streets lined with trees and large houses, Ian remarks, ‘can you imagine a mum with a pushchair coming this way to get out cash?’
Although much of the community request response work is done using bird’s eye view data, be that Google Maps or demographic information about how likely a community is to need cash, our walk, Ian says, is proof that ‘you need to come around and look, you need to get the topography.’
Highgate hills: Our 45-minute walk around Highgate entails a few ups and downs
While as the crow flies it might not be all that far, no one, Ian concludes, is going to walk down to the Sainsbury’s to get cash out and then back up the hill to go and spend it.
That’s one point of the walk, which takes roughly 45 minutes and takes us on a big loop down to the supermarket, up a main road and then back to our starting point. The other is to try and find a suitable spot to potentially put a new machine.
‘There are locations where we would like to do something but haven’t been able to find a location or a willing retailer, sometimes we’re limited by what’s in the area’, Ian said. ‘For example, there might be one shop in a place that doesn’t want it.’
In Highgate, the approach appears to be akin to Goldilocks trying to find a suitable bowl of porridge.
Highgate High Street’s closest source of free cash requires a trek down a fairly steep hill and then back up again if someone wanted to spend it
Several corner shops and other small stores are potentially too small to fit an ATM in, other shops might be limited by their opening hours, while a charity shop doesn’t want to ruin its literal shop window by putting a machine in it.
‘The process can take a bit of time’, Ian notes. ‘Not everyone wants one, not everywhere is suitable and there’s a lot of follow-up work.’ Link aims for deployment within six months of a successful request, he said.
Still, by the end of our picturesque, and thankfully rainless, stroll, he believes he has a potential shortlist of three or four possible spots.
A local petrol station was initially not keen due to security concerns, something which Ian said is not uncommon, but Ian later texts me to say it may be more open to the idea. A local newsagent on the high street likely tops the list of possible candidates.
Ian is looking out for potential spots to place a new ATM if the request is approved. A local petrol station might be an option, but the owner isn’t particularly keen over fears of theft
But while the scheme works for the communities who ‘win’ the ATM raffle, like York, which our sister title the Financial Mail on Sunday visited at the start of this month, what of those which don’t?
With thousands of free-to-use ATMs and hundreds of bank branches having closed in the last few years, 60 – perhaps soon to be 61 – seems too small a number to make a dent in that.
And the scheme is no substitute for a comprehensive framework designed to preserve access to cash.
Link does have other tools in its box, like upping interchange payments to operators to ensure a machine’s viability and pledging to protect the last machine in town, but he freely admits the scheme is ‘a safety valve’.
But, he said, ‘I think it’s a great scheme because it’s coming directly from consumers.’
Whether or not this particular cashless part of North London agrees will likely depend on whether it gets one or not.
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