A two hour drive to pop to the bank: The rural Scots hit by branch closures
In the village of Balfron, in rural Stirlingshire, residents were recently dealt a blow in their campaign to keep their local bank open.
A stay of execution provided by the Covid-19 crisis and lockdown has now come to an end - with a firm closing date of March now set by operator Bank of Scotland.
Balfron community council chair, Colin Cameron, has been leading the fight.
“Balfron is a rural community that still relies on cash, with a high proportion of older people and very limited public transport options,” he says. “Many people in the local community still use the bank because they want to talk to somebody and get support they need, so it will create a huge problem when it closes. We also have a lot of small businesses who rely on it.”
While the Bank of Scotland plans to offer a mobile service in Balfron, no timetable has been given of when, how long or where it will be based.
Balfron butcher Brian McGowan says a mobile service will not benefit the local businesses which line the high street.
"You don’t want somewhere you can only bank cash once a week,” he says. “It is a big issue for the community. The bank is closing down, but in reality, it’s a sign of the times. We use it to pay cash in, but what else do we do there? You don’t go to speak to your local bank manager to ask to borrow money any more, it doesn’t work like that.”
Balfron is not alone in losing its high street bank. A report published by Which? last year found that Scotland had lost 38 per cent of its bank branch network over the previous five years.
Earlier this week, TSB announced plans to close 74 more, hitting hard both small businesses who rely on banking facilities to process their takings and older residents who are not comfortable with online banking.
Meanwhile, a report published last year by Which? found that RBS has shuttered 63 per cent of its Scottish network since 2014. In the same period, Bank of Scotland closed 94 branches, equivalent to 32 per cent of its network, followed by Clydesdale, which closed 47 per cent.
Age Scotland has warned that people who are older, disadvantaged, or on low incomes, would struggle to travel to another bank - pointing out that almost half a million people over 60 in Scotland do not use the internet.
Colin Borland, director of devolved nations at the Federation of Small Businesses, says the closure of a bank can have a major knock-on effect on a town or village.
“TSB is just the latest in a line of banks, big business and public services pulling out of our towns and high streets,” he says. “When a bank branch closes, it doesn’t just leave another hole on the high street. It leaves the local community with fewer services and usually less access to cash. It takes more relatively well-paid jobs out of the local economy. It further hits the footfall on which many other local businesses depend.
“In remote and rural areas, it can leave entire communities without services. That can leave customers having to spend several hours out of their business, travelling many miles to and from the nearest branch.”
Borland warns that many businesses, particularly in rural areas, find it hard to access online banking facilities reliably.
He says: “Your mobile banking app – even if it works perfectly one hundred percent of the time – isn’t going to replace that. And, in areas with poor broadband or 4G, customers can’t even rely on it to replace the most routine transactions.”
In the remote village of Durness, in the Highlands, the nearest bank is in Golspie, 74 miles away and a two hour drive down single track roads.The last local bank, in Tongue, closed some time ago.
James Findlay, co-owner of chocolate store and cafe Cocoa Mountain in Durness, cashes up at the nearby Post Office.
“There is a mobile bank which comes once a week, but that isn’t enough for businesses,” he explains. “You don’t want to be holding on to cash for that long. Luckily, I’m able to deposit money into my Santander account through the Post Office, but if I want to do any other kind of face to face banking, I have to go to Inverness, where my nearest branch is. There won’t be any banks left soon.”
He adds: “We have gone almost entirely cashless since the pandemic, which has helped, as everything is online. Now, with Covid, the cashless society will come in faster.”
Gareth Shaw, head of money at Which?, warns that the financial regulator needs to keep an eye on closure decisions in rural areas to ensure that people are not cut off from essential banking services.
He says: “Scotland has seen hundreds of branch closures in the last five years, presenting a major challenge to some rural communities who have been left without access to a bank in their local area.
“While some banks offer mobile branches, the fragility of this support was demonstrated when these services were suspended during the initial coronavirus lockdown. The Post Office can also offer some assistance, but not the full range of services that a bank provides.”
Charities are also impacted by bank closures, leaving local volunteer-led fundraising groups – a mainstay of the sector – unable to bank cash after events.
Debbie Mooney, head of community fundraising in Scotland for end-of-life charity Marie Curie says: “Fundraising in the community continues to be heavily reliant on cash donations and therefore local bank closures are having a negative impact on the charity sector across Scotland.
"Whilst we understand and appreciate the climate has changed and many people are embracing new ways of banking, charities will always have the need to bank cash from collections and local events.”