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Revealed: majority struggled to access cash or a bank branch during the pandemic

Which? is calling on the government to provide clarity on when legislation to protect the cash network will be introduced

Revealed: majority struggled to access cash or a bank branch during the pandemic

New Which? research reveals the extent of the decline of an already fragile cash system during the coronavirus pandemic.

Our survey of over 2,000 people found that almost three in five have experienced one or more issues accessing cash or a bank branch in the last 12 months.

One in four respondents told us they experienced at least one cashpoint issue. One in six said a cashpoint they use had run out of cash or not been working when needed, and one in eight said a cashpoint they used has been removed or has introduced charges.

Meanwhile, four in ten respondents said they had experienced bank branch issues, including the closure of a bank branch they used to visit or that a branch had reduced its opening hours.

Which? believes the rapid reduction in cash access points shows there is an urgent need for the government to introduce legislation to protect consumers who are reliant on cash and most at risk from closures.


The decline of bank branches and ATMs

Bank branches and ATMs have been closing at a rapid pace in recent years.

Which? analysis of data from LINK, the UK’s largest cash machine network, shows that over the past 18 months the total number of ATMs in service has dropped by almost 8,000, equivalent to 13% of the total number of machines. 

Most of this decline occurred during the first few months of the pandemic (March to May 2020). But since May 2020 there’s been relatively little further change which suggests these closures will be a permanent reduction to the network. 

Separate Which? research has found that since the first national lockdown in March last year until the end of restrictions this July, there were 801 bank branch closures, with another 103 set to close by the end of the year.

Fee-charging ATM lottery

We also found there are stark differences in the proportion of cash machines that charge for withdrawals across the country.

For example, the proportion of pay-to-use machines in the West Midlands (28%) is nine percentage points higher than that in the South East (19%).

Our findings cast a new light on research by the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) and the Payment Systems Regulator (PSR) last month, which showed that most people have reasonable access to cash through a combination of bank, building society, or Post Office branches and ATMs.

According to their analysis, 95% of the UK population is within 2 km of a free cash access point. However, this falls to 77% for those in rural areas.

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What’s being done to protect cash?

There are a number of ongoing initiatives designed to help preserve and improve the UK’s fragile cash infrastructure.

Access to Cash pilots

The independent Community Access to Cash Pilots launched a collection of pilot schemes last June, with an aim to support eight communities across the UK to trial and test scalable solutions to help keep cash sustainable. 

One of its initiatives offers ‘shared banking hubs’, counter services run by the Post Office, alongside face-to-face access to community bankers representing those banks with the most customers in the area.

The trial is taking place in Cambuslang, South Lanarkshire, and Rochford, Essex. It was due to end in October, but has now been extended until April 2023. According to UK Finance, the banking hubs have helped over 12,000 customers with access to cash and basic banking needs since its launch in April.

Cashback without purchase

Another solution intended to ensure people can get access to cash is retailers being able to offer cashback without having to make a purchase.

The Access to Cash Action Group – formed  by UK Finance earlier this year to develop industry proposals for how access to cash could be protected in the long term – has confirmed that it will roll out the initiative to thousands of smaller shops in the coming months. 

During the pilot, customers made thousands of withdrawals and balance enquiries, at an average of £28 each time, UK Finance says.

The Which? Cash Friendly pledge

Which? has separately been working to boost cash acceptance after finding that one in three people had cash payments refused during the pandemic.

Back in May, we launched the Which? Cash Friendly pledge – a public commitment retailers can take to signal to customers that they welcome cash payments.

An array of retailers have signed up to the pledge, big and small, including Aldi, John Lewis and Lloyds Pharmacy. 

Which? calls for urgent legislation to protect cash

Which? is concerned about the lack of oversight of the cash system, which is rapidly declining.

The reduction in cash access points revealed by Which? research shows the urgent need for the government to introduce legislation to protect consumers who rely on cash in their everyday lives.

While many people can now bank digitally, millions of people are not yet ready or able to do so. It is consumers who are looking to withdraw and spend cash in nearby shops or the high street who will be hardest hit if they are left without a way to access it locally.

It’s been over a year since Chancellor Rishi Sunak committed to protecting cash in the 2020 Budget. In July 2021, the Treasury finally launched a consultation into how cash legislation could work, including proposals to make the FCA the lead regulator for ensuring that people can continue to withdraw cash locally, which includes powers to hold the banking industry accountable if further decline of the cash network would put this access under threat.

Which? supports the proposals, but we are calling for the government to provide clarity about when this legislation will be in place.

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