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27 Nov 2019

Bank branch closures risk leaving millions of people behind

Carrying out simple banking tasks online would be a struggle for many

Millions of people are at risk of struggling with everyday banking tasks as simple as checking their balance thanks to widespread bank branch closures and a rapid turn towards digital alternatives according to new Which? research.

Our Everyday Finances report found that one in five - around 11 million people - exclusively used non-digital ways to bank, such as branches, ATMs, post offices and telephone banking over a three-month period. Yet banks and building societies are forging ahead with reducing their bank branch networks and digital systems cannot be fully relied upon to pick up the slack.

The report comes as TSB announces plans to close over 80 branches in 2020 and invest £120m in digital banking and Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) figures reveal UK banks suffered five IT shutdowns every week over the last year.

Here, we explain what our survey reveals about the nation's banking habits and the challenges we face in protecting access to key banking services and cash.

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Everyday banking tasks a struggle

Which? research has found that more than a third of bank and building society branches have closed in less than five years and customers are increasingly being encouraged to bank online.

But when we talked to 2,006 adults in August and September this year, many said they would struggle with basic banking tasks if they could only use websites or apps to manage their bank accounts.

The graph below shows the proportion of people that were not confident in completing everyday banking tasks through an app or a website.

Almost two in five would not be confident in applying for a loan or credit card using digital banking.

Just under a third said they would not be confident setting up a regular payment using a banking website or app.

Worryingly, a fifth of those surveyed - equivalent to 11 million adults - would not even be confident checking their balance online via a website or app.

Cash is a vital backup when digital fails

As well as the need to maintain banking services the report also highlighted our continued need for access to cash.

Previous Which? research revealed that some 5,334 free machines were either closed or converted to fee-paying between January 2018 and May 2019.

In our survey, nine out of 10 told us they view cash as an important backup as it doesn't rely on a digital IT system to work.

New figures from the FCA show that banks have experienced 265 IT glitches in the last year. These included 133 incidents involving internet banking and 111 mobile banking failures.

These gaps in service are likely to have temporarily limited a customer's ability to perform basic tasks like making payments or moving money from one account to another.

Digital change leaving people behind

Nine in 10 of those who took part in the survey said they were worried about the pace of change.

Some said they can't keep up because of real barriers such as a lack of connectivity or the cost of getting online.

A quarter told us they would need financial assistance to pay for broadband to get online for their banking needs.

And the same proportion said the internet or mobile network in their area was too unreliable to depend on their smartphone or smart devices to make payments.

'This won't be any good for elderly people,' said one respondent called Sian. 'It's not fair as they're used to dealing with branches. They're not used to all this new stuff that's coming out.'

More than eight in 10 would need some form of support if they had to interact with their bank using a computer, tablet or smartphone.

Meanwhile, a massive 94% had concerns about digital connectivity, while 92% are concerned about safety and security online.

Banking is a utility - we must protect it

Our research finds that three-quarters of adults see everyday banking and payment services as a utility - as essential to their lives as having running water in their homes and power to keep warm.

Most adults would find it difficult to live without a bank account (89%) and the ability to withdraw cash (88%).

Which? believes the findings from its Everyday Finances survey should act as a wake-up call to the banking industry to ensure customers aren't shut out of vital financial services.

In the face of widespread bank branch and cashpoint closures and regular IT glitches, Which? is calling on the next government to introduce legislation that protects cash.

Gareth Shaw, Head of Money, Which?, said: 'In our nationwide survey, consumers have made it clear that cash is a vital back-up when digital systems fail - so it's clear the next government should urgently introduce legislation to protect cash for as long as it is needed.u201d

You can help us protect payment freedom by signing our petition.