The closure of branches by Bank of Ireland had been well signposted by the lender but is no less disappointing for employees and its personal and business customers — especially those who haven’t adapted to banking online.
In the medium to longer-term, the closures of 15 of its 28 NI branches will harm the areas where they were located unless we have a miraculous revival in retail.
By shutting slightly more than half, it’s a bigger cut than the First Trust move to close 15 of its 30 branches a few years back.
And it’s more evidence that Covid-19 has precipitated the pre-existing trend towards online transactions in banking, just like it has done for retail.
We’ve also seen closures on a lesser scale from Ulster Bank and Danske Bank.
And Ulster Bank is withdrawing completely from the market in the Republic of Ireland over the next couple of years, though it will remain in Northern Ireland.
Bank of Ireland has said in the three years before the pandemic, the number of people visiting branches had reduced by a quarter. But since the pandemic, when we’ve been confined to our homes for much of the time, visits to branches are now just half of what they were in 2017.
And it’s said that 52% of transactions are now being made in Post Office branches as part of a pre-existing arrangement between the two.
Towns and locations where branches are closing, like Strabane and Dungannon, Downpatrick and Portadown, and suburban areas like Belfast’s Ormeau and Lisburn Road, will be left with empty buildings likely to sit on the market for some time — if not indefinitely.
The closures also diminish the business rates which can be collected by government — another blow as the closure of bricks and mortar shops also means diminishing returns from rates.
Neighbouring traders are also likely to suffer a hit from the loss of footfall from bank customers.
Given the growth in the housing market, could we see former bank branches in sought-after residential areas like Ormeau and Lisburn Road become luxury apartments?
Arguably, that doesn’t particularly serve the community and social needs which are also met by bank branches as a by-product of their main business, such as Bank of Ireland’s regular Enterprise Week.
Former Danske Bank branches in Comber, Kilrea and Ballycastle which were shut last year are on the market. With Bank of Ireland joining them, do we need government to intervene to introduce incentives for the redevelopment to serve a community, instead of or as well as commercial purpose?
Town and city centres are already facing the loss of Debenhams and Topshop stores after their sales to online-only retailers.
The loss of bank branches isn’t going to help.