Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 25 October 2014

DebateNI home of Northern Ireland politics

Banks that like to say 'we've closed'

High Street banking has changed out of all recognition since Captain Mainwaring's day. And not for the better, writes Michael Wolsey

Don't bank on it: Captain Mainwaring's day is gone; meeting a banker is being replaced by computers
Don't bank on it: Captain Mainwaring's day is gone; meeting a banker is being replaced by computers
Michael Wolsey

My local bank is to close, victim of an economy drive that is pruning branches everywhere. Many of you will have had this experience recently; many more will face it soon, when Ulster Bank begins another round of closures.

For me it is deja vu. I switched to my current bank two years ago, when the one I was with shut its neighbourhood branch.

At the time, I was worried by the prospect of life without a local bank and quickly found an alternative. Now I couldn't care less.

I rarely cross its doors and, when I do, it is obvious they would rather I conducted my business elsewhere.

There's a woman at a reception desk whose job, in theory, is to direct customers to the appropriate service. In practice, her role is to get you back on the street as quickly as possible.

If I want to withdraw cash, or lodge a cheque, she will point me to an ATM. If I want to transfer money she will suggest I go home and do it online.

If I want to check my account, she will explain that I can key in the request on my phone. And if I want to borrow money? Ha! Who would be so foolish?

But if, say, I'm a masochist who relishes the thrill of rejection, I could put down my name now and I might get to see a manager before Christmas.

You will note I say "a manager". There was a time when I would have asked to meet "the manager".

The local bank manager was a person of some stature. All customers knew his name and he knew theirs and a good deal more about them besides.

Fans of Dad's Army will be familiar with the prototype. Captain Mainwaring could be officious and pompous, but he knew everyone who banked at his Walmington-on-Sea branch, understood their problems and tried his best to help these people who were, after all, his neighbours, as well as his clients.

He might not always have given them that loan, but he would have explained the refusal and would, perhaps, have helped them put their finances in good order, so a loan might not be needed, or advised them how to restructure their small business in a way which would make their overdraft request acceptable to head office.

Captain Mainwaring was the face of local banking. Today it is faceless. If I'm patient, I may get to meet "a manager", but it is most unlikely that I will ever get to know him, or her.

Although it is faceless, modern banking does have a voice. I often get telephone calls from representatives of my bank inquiring, ostensibly, if I am happy with the service.

These calls rarely come at a convenient moment and I usually try to end them as soon as civility allows.

Occasionally, though, I offer an opinion and start to explain that it is difficult to evaluate a service when none is provided.

The callers have no interest in this. Person-to-person banking services are not on the agenda. Their concern is with "additional services". They want to sell me insurance, persuade me to take another credit card or to buy some new product.

They say they may be able to save me some money, but I'm pretty sure that what they really want is for me to spend more money.

They are happy to talk on the phone, but shy of direct contact. Even popping some literature in the post seems to present a problem.

We run a paper-free office, one caller told me. Fine. Then I won't clutter it with any more folding money of mine.

Local banks have to make a profit, of course. Back in Captain Mainwaring's day – and for decades after – they did so by the most simple and open of methods: they imposed a charge.

I don't mean a charge for overdrafts or "additional services", although they would have charged for those, too, but a small fee for the basic banking service provided.

It would be there on your bank statement, which they used to send through the post once a month, or more frequently, if required.

This payment established a contract such as you might also have with a lawyer, or a plumber, an electrician, or a car mechanic. The bank provided a service and you paid for it. If you didn't like the service, you took your custom elsewhere.

The introduction of so-called "free" banking broke this contract. You may have ended up paying more than ever, but the charge was for the "additional services" – not basic banking.

And since the basic services no longer made money, banks began to withdraw them.

Now some banks are beginning to reimpose the fixed charges, but without restoring the old services.

I would like genuine person-to-person service from my bank and would be happy to pay something extra for it.

I will switch my account to the first branch that truly offers this facility. And I don't think I would be alone.'Her role is to get you back on the street as quickly as possible'

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