The widespread closure of bank branches is sabotaging high streets up and down the country. And some banks, rather than rallying to support communities hit by lockdown and the pandemic, are now shamefully using this as an excuse to shut even more, The Mail on Sunday has discovered.
Four years ago Ware, in Hertfordshire, was a bustling market town with half a dozen banks serving the 19,000-strong community. But the banks have fallen like dominoes – first HSBC, then NatWest, Santander and Lloyds.
Then, during lockdown, Barclays shut up shop while the final bank in town, TSB, has ‘temporarily closed’ its branch. The result? Not one bank in town. Toby Walne reports from bankless Ware.
All banks are now gone in Ware in Hertfordshire
EXODUS CREATES A GHOST TOWN
A blue plaque is proudly displayed on the side of the abandoned HSBC branch. It reveals the bank was built on the site of the 1426 White Hart Inn.
This once famous coach house was home to the haunted ‘Great Bed of Ware’ – which could sleep four couples and was so notorious it was mentioned in Shakespeare’s comedy Twelfth Night.
This huge four-poster is now housed in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, but the spirit that haunted it remains on Ware’s sorry high street.
Kim Bradbury is the owner of Blo By Blo – a hairdresser opposite the site of the HSBC branch. She says: ‘We are surviving in a ghost town now – thanks to banks quitting when we needed them most.
‘I used HSBC and I was annoyed when it shut as it always seemed so busy. I inquired about moving my salon there when it shut down, but it would not rent it out to me.’
Our manifesto to keep cash on the high street
- Every town should have at least one bank
- Every town should have a free cash machine
- For smaller communities without a bank, post office or free cash machine, ‘cashback’ facilities must be offered for free at local shops and pubs
Since then bank branches have fallen swiftly along a 100-metre stretch of Ware’s high street. After HSBC began the exodus four years ago, it was followed by NatWest two years later, and Santander and Lloyds, both last year.
Then, with the Covid-19 crisis, Barclays shut its branch and TSB ‘temporarily closed’ its premises.
A sign on the outside of TSB’s building states: ‘We’ve closed this branch until further notice due to Covid-19 social distancing requirements.’ There is no apology or hint as to when it might reopen – nor any explanation as to why such ‘requirements’ apply to this branch but not others of a similar size.
Rather than be transformed into swanky wine bars or trendy coffee shops, as happened to abandoned sites in the past, every bank branch in Ware remains empty and looks in a sorry state – shuttered up with windows that are painted over and rusting iron covers on holes that once housed cash machines.
PERMANENT DAMAGE TO THE COMMUNITY
Understandably, locals are furious about the way banks have abandoned their community without consultation – or considering the permanent damage they have wrought.
Brydie Taylor wanted to open a savings account for her son, Onyx, on his first birthday last week. The 28-year-old designer says: ‘The greedy banks trot out the same excuse that online banking is the future and anyone who does not get involved is a dinosaur.
Shortsighted move: Brydie Taylor wanted to open a savings account for her one-year-old son Onyx but found that all the banks in Ware were gone
‘Well, I am young and internet savvy, but I have no interest in internet banking. I want to deal with real, friendly bank branch staff that can help me sort out my finances. Branch closures are just about saving money and taking away choice.’
The surviving shops on Ware’s high street report that the number of visitors has fallen by more than half since the banks all shut. This has been exacerbated by an overzealous council erecting bollards everywhere that proclaim: ‘Traffic management in place to promote social distancing.’
Some say this has deterred many people from coming into the town centre and has been a contributory factor in the recent closures of a Greggs bakery and travel agency.
A HEARTLESS LACK OF SOCIAL RESPONSIBILITY
Retired civil engineer Stewart Hillen is married to Jane, 79, a retired teacher. The 82-year-old says: ‘I believe banks have a social responsibility to serve the communities from which they make their money.
Lockdown issues: Stewart and Jane Hillen say reduced transport services as a result of Covid-19 mean many elderly people cannot now reach their nearest branch
‘When there is just one remaining bank in town, it should not be allowed to close because it can have a devastating effect.
‘We are fortunate because we have a car and can drive to towns where there is a bank, but many people – some elderly, others vulnerable – do not have their own transport. They feel abandoned and isolated.’
The next nearest town, Hertford, is only three miles away, but without a car, people must use public transport. Severely reduced services during lockdown have meant a reliance on others to help out.
Although there is still a post office counter at the back of a newsagent on Ware’s high street, there are often long queues and social distancing means going there is impractical for many elderly people to use.
Saffron Building Society maintains a branch in Ware that commendably remained open during lockdown. But it doesn’t draw the same number of customers as a bank – and doesn’t offer key services, such as current accounts.
A Barclays poster, put up when the branch closed on April 24, states: ‘This branch has now closed. But your options are still open.’
These options include banking online, phoning up, downloading a mobile app or taking a chance and visiting a post office counter for more limited services.
Concern: Kim Bradbury says the HSBC near her salon was busy
Last year, Barclays drew up plans to stop its customers withdrawing cash from a post office – but the idea was scrapped after a public outcry. What seems doubly wrong about the banks’ withdrawal from Ware is that they have also removed their free cash machines.
It means the only ATM on the high street sits outside a small convenience store – and charges a 99p fee to get hold of your own cash.
Do the banks care about the communities they draw their customers from? The answer in Ware is a resounding ‘no’.
It’s wrong, short-sighted, destructive and someone should do something about it pretty damned quick – before ‘ghost’ high streets like Ware become the norm.