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Protecting access to banking

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A step in the right direction

Age UK's Head of Policy Christopher Brooks discusses the recent announcement by the UK's major banks about their intention to protect access to cash.

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In order to manage their personal finances, many older people rely on physical banking services like having access to cash, bank branches and the Post Office. Protecting this is extremely important, especially for those who are not online. 

Throughout the pandemic, we’ve heard from older people who have been affected by this, made worse by the fact the many people are staying at home more. It’s an issue close to Age UK’s heart.

As branch closures continue, and with cash use already declining prior to the pandemic, the lockdowns and the drive by businesses to get people to shop and bank online has decreased the availability of services still further. This is something Age UK has written about before.

To help arrest this decline, over the past year or so we have been working closely with the banks to help them design a new way of delivering banking services that will hopefully protect access to cash and essential banking services (like paying in a cheque or making a payment) for years to come.

Recognising that a decline in cash use can cause significant issues for many people – including, but not exclusively, older people – the banks got together to form the Cash Action Group (CAG), which was given the task of designing a new system to deliver banking services. Alongside senior figures from all the major UK banks, Age UK was invited to sit on the group as a consumer representative.

This gave us the chance to put the views of older people across to the banks, and feed into the service design in a way that would best help cash-dependent older people. To ensure that the banks did not unfairly write all the new rules themselves, the CAG was independently chaired by Natalie Ceeney, a consumer banking expert who had previously chaired the Access to Cash Review.

The new solution

Today’s announcement by the UK’s major banks on how they intend to protect access to banking services cash is very welcome, and we believe is a significant step in the right direction. It’s really the first time that the industry and consumer groups have all come together to develop a meaningful solution to this problem. Much of it is modelled on the Access to Cash pilots, which have been running in locations across the UK over the past couple of years, and have provided a great deal of insight into what works and what doesn’t.

The bottom line of the reform is that from next year, we’ll start to see banking services being protected and, in some larger communities with a lack of banking facilities we’ll see new shared banking hubs being developed, where customers of all the major – and some smaller – banks and building societies will be able to carry out banking transactions.

Depending on community size, which is defined by both the number of retailers and the local population, other facilities will be put in place if necessary, but all are guaranteed free access to cash. This can include investing in Post Offices to ensure they can safely and securely offer the full range of banking facilities.

In future, whenever a ‘last branch in town’ closes there will automatically be a review of community banking provision, which could lead to some of these services being put in place. If local communities believe they do not have sufficient access, they can request a review.

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A solid future

For many years it’s been very difficult to turn against the tide of branch closures, and as fewer people use them it becomes a vicious cycle with an ever-reducing commercial case for keeping them open. With the Government being unwilling to step in and compel banks to keep them open, it was time for a lasting solution to arrest this decline to be put in place.

We’re pleased the industry has taken the initiative in this way, and are optimistic that this new system will preserve physical banking services, for the near future at least. Nothing lasts forever, and consumers’ banking needs change over time, but hopefully the reduced costs of running services in this way will enable to keep facilities open and mitigate the drive towards online banking, which places many older people in a difficult position.

We will also keep working with the banks to make sure that people who have limited mobility or are unable to leave their home, for whatever reason, can access cash. This is being left to individual banks so we’d like to see a consistent and comprehensive service.

Also, this doesn’t automatically mean the end of single-bank branches. We hope that banks will continue to keep them open wherever possible. And we will of course be carefully watching to check that changes in the landscape do genuinely help meet older people’s banking needs now and in the future.

Let us know

Help us build a picture of how these reforms are working by telling us if you're having difficulties accessing cash or banking services in their local area.

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Last updated: May 30 2022

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