More and more of our banks are shutting up shop, but while it may be a minor inconvenience in cities, for rural communities it’s devastating
The old saying ‘money makes the world go round’ may always be true, but in the decades to come carrying bank notes or coins in a purse or wallet may end up consigned to the history books some time this century.
A recent report by Link warned that cash will form as little as 10% of all UK transactions within the next 15 years — and the impact of this is already visible on our high streets.
The physical presence of the “big four” banking names — Ulster Bank, Bank of Ireland, Danske and AIB First Trust — in Northern Ireland is waning. Within a decade, the total number of branches almost halved from 236 in 2010 to 114 last year, according to published figures and announcements.
The banking industry was dealt another hammer blow when Danske announced it was closing a further four branches over the next few months, a development that was followed quickly by Ulster Bank when it revealed it was shutting down nine branches.
The areas affected by the latter include Holywood, Warrenpoint, Dunmurry, Antrim, Ballymoney, Larne, Comber, Maghera and Clogher, while Danske branches in Lurgan, Cookstown, Kilkeel and Fivemiletown will cease trading in September.
In October last year Danske Bank closed branches in Ballygawley, Co Tyrone, Hillsborough in Co Down, Mallusk in Co Antrim and at University Road in Belfast. It now has 28 branches here.
While some of the customers in the towns affected will be able to switch banks relatively easily, others will have more a headache, including the citizens of Fivemiletown who will be left without a bricks-and-mortar bank this autumn.
Greg Williamson, managing director of The Valley Hotel and member of the local chamber of commerce, said the loss of Dankse would have a “significant impact” on his family-run business as well as on the wider community
“It’s going to a massive loss to the town and local trade and people alike,” he told the Belfast Telegraph.
“We’re a family-run business that has been running from May 1, 1970, and we have been banking with Danske all of that time — 52 years with the one bank.
“We rely heavily on that facility being in the town. Not only locally, but you have people travelling quite a bit of a distance from neighbouring towns because their bank has been closed and coming to Fivemiletown for that purpose.”
He adds: “Now from Dungannon to Enniskillen, we have no Danske bank. The very next week Ulster Bank in Clogher announced they were closing as well so we feel we’ve totally been left isolated in whole the Clogher Valley area.”
Another rural area losing its bank branches is Kilkeel, which to set to lose its Danske outlet but also its Ulster Bank. Spearheading the campaign to keep physical banks open is the SDLP, which last year launched a petition to urge urgent action to tackle the issue.
Newry and Armagh MLA Justin McNulty at the time argued: “The UK and Irish Governments, using taxpayer money, supported banks through their crisis in 2008 and 2009.
“Now it is time for those same banks to support wider society through this crisis.”
Mr McNulty’s party colleague, Councillor Laura Devlin, who represents the Mournes area, says the recent development has had a “huge impact” locally, particularly in the more rural areas “where people face long journeys if they wish to avail of in-person banking”.
“In the last few weeks we have seen closures of both Danske Bank and Ulster Bank branches, leaving many areas without a bank branch at all,” she said.
“Bank branches also provide significant employment, particularly in smaller areas where there are less opportunities for people.
“While I accept that more and more people are opting for online banking and there is a need to move with the times, there is still a significant part of our population that prefers to do their banking in person at a physical location.
“Our older population in particular rely on banks for a number of vital services and many of them would struggle to access or navigate online banking.”
Greg also agrees that any prospect of not being able to access bank notes will have wider consequences for Fivemiletown.
“We run a lot of entertainment events in the town, from fundraising for all of the schools, to fashion shows, to formals, to tribute nights — all these events are paid cash, or pay at the door,” explains the hotel managing director.
“A lot of these fundraisers do raffle tickets… how do you pay for your taxi? How do you pay for your Chinese takeaway? A lot of the businesses don’t operate with card machines.
“There’s a significant amount of money withdrawn from the ATM each week, which people heavily rely on.
“Then there’s the older folk who have anxiety about online banking and don’t understand it.”
There are fears that along with the bank, Danske’s ATM will also be withdrawn, although the chamber, says Greg, hopes it will remain. Customers will also be able to access cash from the post office.
“We’ve a good line of communication, and we hope the ATM remains and they’ve offered their support to the town in the form of an ATM and we very much welcomed that from Danske,” he explains.
Danske did not respond to a request for comment at the time of going to press, but previously Aisling Press, managing director of personal banking at the bank, said the business has had to adapt to the changing ways customers are accessing services.
“Now, many are choosing to use alternative ways of banking with us, such as our digital solutions, online banking, app or banking on the telephone,” said Aisling.
“As a business, we have to respond to these changes and part of that is reviewing and adapting how we invest in customer solutions for the future.”
Stressing Danske has invested around £6 million in 25 branches here over the past six years, the managing director explained the bank has written to the customers of the affected branches and the bank confirmed there would be no redundancies as a result of the closures.
“Over the coming weeks, customers will also be able to get additional support in our branches and from our local customer contact centre,” she added.
Meanwhile, Glyn Roberts, chief executive of Retail NI, said it’s “regrettable to see so many bank branches close at the one time, in the space of such a short time” but changes in how we bank is making online banking inevitable.
“A lot of our members now have post offices where the businesses can bank. Seeing a lot of our convenience members step into fill that gap where many rural businesses can continue to bank. I think that’s good that that’s happening,” he explained.
“We shouldn’t ever forget, however, that older people and vulnerable people can struggle with technology and online banking. We should always be very cognisant of their needs and challenges as well.
“Whilst it is disappointing to see all those branches closing, at the same time we have to be honest and more and more people are doing online banking. And that’s equally the same for many independent retailers, rural retailers and small businesses, and they’re increasingly finding they can do what they do with online banking.
“It’s regrettable to see them close, but we cannot ignore the phenomenal growth in online banking and that increased during the pandemic.”
It raises questions that in the decades to come, if it will only be cities and urban areas that will boast high street banks, a prospect that Councillor Devlin, who insists her party will continue to engage with banks to find a solution, says that leaves her “seriously concerned”.
“While I recognise change is sometimes necessary, I believe a solution can be found that enables people who wish to do their banking in the traditional way to continue do so, protects local jobs and utilises modern technology for everyone’s benefit,” she stresses.
Northern Ireland overall, however, is losing bank branch and ATM access at a lower rate compared to other parts of the UK, according to official figures published in a House of Commons paper on banking access in April.
Between 2012 and 2021, the total number of bank and building society branches in the UK fell by 34%.
The smallest decrease was in Northern Ireland (-3%) while the largest was in the south west of England at -40%.
The number of ATMs in the UK fell by 12,968 or 20% between July 2018 and February 2022. Again while the biggest decrease was in England, with London at -24%, the smallest was in Northern Ireland (-13%).
Greg points out, however, the loss of a bank to a community goes beyond numbers and statistics, insisting that even if the ATM is saved, losing the bank itself, which is located on Fivemiletown’s Main Street, is losing a part of community life and will have a wider economic impact.
“I think the bank’s been there since 1874. A lot of people who visit the bank go to the pharmacy across the road, they go to the local butcher’s, they go to the coffee shop,” he argues.
“They do other messages while they’re in the town, and now they’re going to have to travel to Dungannon or Enniskillen if they want to see a Danske Bank branch. And we all know with the increase in fuel costs and your own personal time to do that — from Fivemiletown to Enniskillen it’s a 30-minute drive. By the time you park your car, walk up and queue — you’re talking an hour-and-half journey to see a Danske Bank representative.
“It’s going to a massive loss to the town and local trade and people alike.”