Belfast Telegraph

Ulster Bank closures: Fears for older customers as 11 branches to shut

By Margaret Canning and Victoria Leonard

Dame Mary Peters has hit out at Ulster Bank's decision to shut 11 branches across Northern Ireland next year, as it could mean many older people find it difficult to access financial services.

Northern Ireland's 78-year-old former Olympic gold medallist and Belfast equality campaigner Baroness May Blood are both Ulster Bank customers, and said older people deserved better after years of loyal custom.

"It will make it harder for the elderly and I would be concerned that they would ask someone else to do their banking for them, which could lead to fraud," Dame Mary said.

"I think elderly people prefer to have someone to communicate with in person.

"I feel sorry for the staff who are going to lose their jobs."

Baroness Blood said the closures will be "distressing for older people" and a sign that "people don't worry about the older generation".

The 79-year-old peer said that the firm was failing to reward the loyalty shown by such customers over the years.

The bank yesterday announced it's pulling down the shutters at branches in five out of six counties in Northern Ireland, including Portrush in Co Londonderry, Ballyclare in Co Antrim and Rathfriland in Co Down.

Ulster Bank branches are also shutting in Dromore, Moira, and Killyleagh, all in Co Down; Draperstown and Dungiven in Co Londonderry; Castlederg and Stewartstown in Co Tyrone; and Irvinestown in Co Fermanagh.

Around 40 staff at the bank are losing their jobs in the move - which leaves Ulster Bank with 44 branches, the same number as closest rival Danske Bank.

"I know a lot of elderly people who put their pensions into the bank, and it will be quite distressing for them not to have a physical branch there," Baroness Blood said. "Internet and phone banking might be OK for young people, but no-one thinks of the elderly, many of whom aren't able to use such facilities and who would find it physically hard to travel farther to access a branch".

"They are they are the generation who have been loyal to the banks and who have kept the banks there this long. This decision isn't looking after their elderly customers."

Bank of Ireland has 28 branches, while First Trust has 15 after closing around half of its branch network earlier this year. The Consumer Council said the latest move by Ulster Bank meant that 42% of Northern Ireland's bank branches had vanished over the last seven years.

All four of the main banks in Northern Ireland have closed up to half of their network in recent years as they cut costs and react to the rise in online and mobile banking.

The Consumer Council said that of the 11 locations losing an Ulster Bank, only Ballyclare and Irvinestown now have any bank at all. Sean Murphy, managing director of personal banking at Ulster Bank, said: "Banking has changed radically in recent years. More and more of our customers are using digital technology and fewer are using our branch network."

And he said the bank hoped that redundancies could be made on a voluntary basis.

Naldo Morelli, the owner of the famous Morelli's Ice-Cream Parlour in Portrush, as well as an ice-cream factory in Coleraine, said the seaside town would now be left without any physical bank presence.

Mr Morelli said activity in the town peaks during the summer, when businesses such as amusements were generating large volumes of cash.

"It's going to be a bit of a nuisance for people to have to go into Coleraine to make lodgements," he said.

He said the loss of a bank could cause problems for the town when its Royal Portrush Golf Club hosts the Open Championship in 2019.

"The town won't even have a bureau de change for visitors and tourists after the Ulster Bank shuts."

John French, chief executive of the Consumer Council, said: "In 2017 alone, there have been 33 bank branch closures.

"This decision by Ulster Bank today will mean an additional 11 branches will be closed, leaving many consumers without a local branch and the services they provide.

"Whilst we recognise that many consumers find it easier to access banking services in different ways such as the internet, apps, and over the phone, it is important to remember that there are still many people and small businesses who do not have access to the internet, and therefore rely on face-to-face banking services to manage their finances.

"With these closures, 42% of Northern Ireland's bank branches will have closed since 2010. Unfortunately, when previous closures have been announced, other banks have often followed suit."

Northern Ireland's Commissioner for Older People, Eddie Lynch, said he was "disappointed" at Ulster Bank's decision.

He stated: "Many older people prefer to do their banking in person and rely on local branches as a safe way to save and access their own money.

"Whilst many older people are adept at using the internet, others do not feel comfortable banking online and will now be left without a physical bank in their community.

"It is not acceptable for older people to be forced to go 'digital by default' for banking or other essential services.

"Without safe local banks, many older people feel they have no choice but to risk keeping large sums of money at home.

"Safe, alternative places are required in order to offer older people a secure and accessible way to keep their cash and withdraw their pension."

Belfast Telegraph

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