Belfast Telegraph

Ulster Bank to shut up to 10 of its branches in restructuring move

By John Mulgrew

Ulster Bank is expected to announce up to 10 branch closures in Northern Ireland within the next fortnight.

It is understood a review of the bank's branch network is under way, and that an announcement is due on cutbacks.

It currently has around 65 branches across Northern Ireland. In the Republic, it has also been reported that Ulster Bank is planning to close branches in its network amid a restructuring of the business.

No one from Ulster Bank was available for comment.

In 2014, Ulster Bank announced it was cutting 10 of its branches, bringing the number from 75 to 65.

In April last year it announced it was cutting 50 jobs across Northern Ireland, and shutting some branches on Saturdays.

Just last month First Trust revealed it is shutting half of its branch network here.

It is understood around 130 staff are facing voluntary redundancy after it announced it was closing 15 branches.

And the latest financial results for First Trust in Northern Ireland - released a week after the cuts were revealed - showed that it made pre-tax profits of £54m, up 15%.

It prompted Larry Broderick, general secretary of the Financial Services Union (FSU), to say that the "rationale for closures has to be re-examined in light of these very positive figures."

During an Assembly debate last year, Northern Ireland banks were accused of "abandoning customers" in favour of chasing profit, following closures in rural areas.

Almost 100 bank branches here have closed within the last four years.

Following the First Trust branch cuts, there were also calls for Stormont to look towards EU legislation to ensure "sufficient banking services" remain across Northern Ireland.

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," Mr Webb said.

"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 closures.

"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."

Responding to the branch cut announcement last month, 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 outlets.

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