Belfast Telegraph

Stormont urged to act in wake of First Trust's branch closures blow in Northern Ireland

By John Mulgrew

Stormont should look to EU legislation to ensure "sufficient banking services" remain across Northern Ireland following this week's announcment that First Trust is shutting half its branch network here.

It's understood around 130 staff are facing voluntary redundancy after First Trust announced it was shutting 15 branches.

Andrew Webb of Webb Advisory said a mechanism does exist through EU legislation that "permits government support for 'services of general economic interest".

"Through this, the Post Office is supported by government to maintain a bigger branch network than it might otherwise justify on a purely commercial basis.

"One of the conditions that the Post Office signed up to is the provision of basic banking services.

"Any job loss announcement is a shame, but there is a sense of unfortunate inevitability about bank branch closures.

"We do face a conundrum with banking - we have very obviously shifted our banking habits away from using branches, but then rail against branch closure.

"Simply, if we don't use them, we will lose them. That said, I don't think it is inevitable that we move to a branchless society, but branches do need to find a way to be relevant."

And Wilfred Mitchell, FSB policy chair, said the closures, which will start at the beginning of July, will "reduce service and competition generally, but will be especially concerning where the closure is of the last branch of any bank in the area".

Owen Reidy, assistant general secretary of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions (ICTU), said: "These closures affect more than the hundreds of workers facing redundancies. Branch closures drain commercial life from main streets and town squares.

"We are a society and not solely an economy, and we can't all migrate online or to out-of-town mega-franchises, and then bemoan the decline of public life and community structures."

Head of First Trust, Des Moore, said the bank has seen a 40% decline in branch usage in the last seven years, with mobile banking up 117% in the last two years.

The bank is investing £10m towards new business centres, including one at University Road in south Belfast.

It has also agreed a partnership with the Post Office, which will allow customers to bank in any of their offices.

John French, chief executive of the Consumer Council, said: "Since 2010, we have seen around 30% of bank branches close in Northern Ireland.

"Following the announcement, we would encourage affected consumers to speak directly with First Trust Bank to ensure the revised arrangements will continue to meet their needs.

"We always recommend that consumers pro-actively ensure that their bank account is right for them and provides the best overall deal and service."

Des Moore added: "We recognise that the pattern of how customers are managing their finances is rapidly evolving in Northern Ireland as it is across Europe. Customers are turning to online, telephone and mobile banking and it is essential that we respond.

"As a result, our transformation programme focuses on building a sustainable business model which allows us to support our customers and the wider Northern Ireland economy in the long term."

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