Bakewell, a Derbyshire market town popular with tourists, is famous for its delicious tarts and puddings.
So popular is its produce that The Old Original Bakewell Pudding Shop does a roaring trade posting its wares all over the UK.
Yet Bakewell is currently attracting nationwide attention because it is about to lose something no other town or village has in the vast Peak District National Park — a bank branch.
In late February next year, its NatWest branch will shut for good leaving Bakewell and the National Park — all 555 square miles of it — bankless.
The impending closure has annoyed everyone among the town’s eclectic mix of independent retailers, constituency MP Sarah Dines, local councillors, residents and the farming community.
More than half of the country’s bank and building society branches have shut since January 2015, leaving just short of 3,900 still open and not (yet) scheduled for closure
And bank branch staff have been left in tears over NatWest’s decision to shut up shop.
Of course, Bakewell isn’t unique. High streets up and down the country have been damaged by bank branch closures.
Yet having spent Monday in the picturesque (and freezing cold) town speaking to locals and traders — and visiting its livestock market — it begs one big question.
If the banks have concluded that Bakewell can’t support a branch, which community can outside the cities and big towns?
To put it bluntly, the big banks — internet and mobile app crazy — seem to want out of the High Street altogether.
‘It’s a crazy decision,’ says Georgie Stewart, co-owner of gift shop Stewarts of Bakewell, located just yards from the bank.
‘We’ve banked with NatWest forever and a day. Now, some bean counter in London has decided that the branch here must shut.’
She adds: ‘Although NatWest may argue otherwise, they don’t seem to care and they don’t understand what the branch means to the community — to businesses like mine which need to bank takings on a regular basis and the many residents who still prefer face-to-face banking.
‘The thought of Bakewell without a bank is an unbearable one.’
Of course, branch closures are nothing new. Money Mail and The Mail on Sunday have been reporting on this for more than 20 years — triggered in part by the decision of Barclays to shut 171 branches, all on one day — April 7 — in 2000.
Upheaval: Matt Fitz, of the Cornish Bakery in Bakewell
According to consumer group Which?, over half of the country’s bank and building society branches have shut since January 2015, leaving just short of 3,900 still open and not (yet) scheduled for closure.
Alarming? Yes. But there is worse to come. As the big banks increasingly drive customers towards mobile phone banking, the death of the bank branch outside cities and big towns is fast approaching.
Data collated by cash machine network Link indicates that, since May last year, 1,259 branches have shut — or are due to close between now and late next year. In the past month alone, more than 100 closures have been announced by Barclays, Lloyds and NatWest.
You don’t need to be an actuary to do the maths. If the current closure rate were to be maintained, most of the country could be without a nearby bank by the end of 2028.
It’s not a good outlook. There are some 300 communities that like Bakewell are currently served by just one bank branch. All the evidence suggests that most of these will suffer the same fate as the Derbyshire town and lose their last remaining branch in the coming year.
As the graphic shows, towns including Dolgellau, Gwynedd; Erskine, Renfrewshire; Glossop, Derbyshire; Portishead, Somerset; and Guisborough, North Yorkshire, are all at threat of losing their last bank.
Analysts believe communities with either Lloyds (including the bank’s other brands Halifax and Bank of Scotland) or NatWest (Ulster Bank and Royal Bank of Scotland) as the last bank in town are in danger of becoming bankless.
This is because these two groups have, until recently, been less aggressive than rivals Barclays and HSBC in shutting branches.
Campaign: Mark Wakeman, with a petition to halt the NatWest closure, outside his pet supplies shop in Bakewell
Link says more than a quarter of the 1,259 branches closed — or put on notice of closure — in the past 20 months have been last banks in town.
Although a newish agreement between the banks and organisations representing the elderly and small businesses is meant to ensure bankless communities have continued High Street access to cash, it’s not proving as effective as some would like.
Link’s data shows that only half of these bankless towns (176 out of 341) have been given — or promised — support by Cash Access UK, set up and funded by the banks to protect communities from the impact of branch closures.
This support is in the form of a banking hub, a shared branch operated by the Post Office with representatives from the major banks available to help customers. Alternatively, it may be a new cash machine or a cash deposit service (aimed at small retailers).
Even when a replacement service is agreed, it can take an age to come on stream. So while 63 hubs have been earmarked for communities hit by the loss of their last bank, only 19 are currently operational.
The delays are a result of difficulty in finding suitable premises and inadequate resources made available to Cash Access UK by the banks.
Last week, Labour promised to ‘accelerate’ the rollout of hubs if it wins the next general election — and legislate to eradicate ‘banking deserts’. It said it would help establish at least 350 hubs countrywide.
Derek French, a long-standing campaigner for shared bank branches, welcomes Labour’s announcement. He has become increasingly frustrated by the slow appearance of hubs.
He says: ‘Hubs will save the banks millions of pounds in branch costs. So they should commit far more financial resource and energy to Cash Access UK, thereby enabling it to put in place more shared branches where customers can obtain face-to-face advice.’
Access to high street banking could become a greater political issue as the election edges nearer. Research by analytics company SAS shows that 28 constituencies (out of a total 650) are already devoid of banks run by the top-seven bank and building society names — Barclays, HSBC, Lloyds, Nationwide, NatWest, Royal Bank of Scotland and Santander.
Yet if constituencies continue to lose branches at the same rate as in the past three years, it says a further ten could become bankless next year. They include the constituencies of Conservative MPs Mel Stride (Central Devon) and Laurence Robertson (Tewkesbury).
The impending closure of NatWest’s Bakewell branch has certainly annoyed Sarah Dines, Tory MP for Derbyshire Dales.
Seven days ago, armed with a petition containing hundreds of signatures opposing the bank’s closure, she raised the issue with Prime Minister Rishi Sunak in the House of Commons. She did not hold back.
‘As disturbed as I was [that] British politicians were being debanked by NatWest, you can imagine my horror that an entire town, Bakewell in Derbyshire Dales, is being debanked by NatWest.’
She added: ‘Can you share my concern please that as we are the national shareholder of NatWest, why are they ignoring my vulnerable, elderly people and also businessmen. It is a big, thriving market town.’
The PM responded by saying that the banks would be funding a new cash deposit service in the town — useful for retailers to bank takings. He also said Bakewell, like most towns, has a post office that bank customers can use.
This did not go down well with Mark Wakeman, a district and town councillor, whom I met on Monday in between negotiating the town’s icy pavements and struggling to keep my fingers and toes vaguely warm.
‘I would like Mr Sunak to visit our post office,’ he told me. ‘Pleasant though the staff are, it invariably has a queue. Indeed, if the queue exceeds five, customers are asked to wait outside. There is also no personal banking advice available which NatWest customers can get at the branch in town.’
No one I met in Bakewell was prepared to defend NatWest’s decision. Matt Fitz, of the Cornish Bakery, said he had responded to the closure announcement by going cashless — despite the promised cash deposit service.
‘I’m not queuing 45 minutes to bank cash takings at the post office,’ he told me. ‘Eighty per cent of my takings were cash based, so my business could well suffer. But NatWest has forced me down this route.’
Endangered: The death of the bank branch outside the cities and big towns is fast approaching as big banks increasingly drive customers towards mobile phone banking
At Bakewell Market, the farmers present — most selling or buying livestock — vented their spleen.
‘I’ve banked with NatWest all my working life,’ said Peter Atkin, whose farm is just off the Snake Pass — often impassable in snow.
‘I don’t have wifi where I live so, for banking, I use a branch including the one in Bakewell.
‘Sadly, banks are now all about profit and greed and nothing to do with customer service. Loyalty no longer pays. Am I angry? Yes. Will I survive? Of course. I’ll just have to find another NatWest branch.’
For the record, NatWest says that when it closes branches, it ensures no customer is left behind.
A notice in the branch window advises customers that in February, their nearest branch will be Chesterfield, 13 miles away. Alternatively they can bank online or via an app.
But how long before the Chesterfield branch shuts? Not long given the current rate of closures.
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