Amidst an atmosphere of uncertainty and a drop in visitor numbers, the Co-op bank has become the next high street bank to announce upcoming branch closures. With over 250 branches already shut or scheduled to close in 2020, the branch network will be a third smaller than it was five years ago. 

Despite being bound to follow the set of rules and procedures known as the Access to Banking Standard, there are concerns that the closure of even more branches leaves the customer at a disadvantage. 

The Access to Banking Standard

The Access to Banking Standard presents a series of guidelines that must be adhered to when considering which branches to shut. This includes communicating with customers that are set to be affected ahead of time and publishing reports on the expected impact that each closure will have. Banks are also required to let their customers know about the alternative services available to them, however there has been much criticism about how effective the Access to Banking process is and whether or not customers are really being considered. 

Online banking is overtaking physical banking

As part of their recent announcement, the Co-op bank stated an increasing level of online traffic and lower numbers of in-branch transactions as forming the basis of their decision. This trend had been slowly progressing, but appears to have been accelerated by the Coronavirus pandemic. Since they have seen growth in their small business share they have made a commitment to improving their online business services. 

Co-operative bank economic uncertainty drop in visits

For other customers, however, the switch to online is not always so easy. Whilst post offices can bridge some of the gaps – for example letting customers pay in or withdraw money and cheques and enabling customers to check their balance – not all services are available. It is not possible for people to open or close bank accounts, place bank transfer requests, grant probate or register powers, make complaints or request replacement cards. Accessing the specific bank or using a banking app is necessary to complete any of these tasks. With post office closures also happening across the country it is important to note that the services they can currently help with may not always be available. 

Protecting customer access to banks

Amid these closures there are several campaigns working to protect customers and their ability to access their cash. The Financial Conduct Authority has issued guidance for banks when closing branches and ATMs, and the UK government has said that new laws will be written to protect access. It has also been suggested that the different banks could pool their resources to provide neutral banking centres that can provide a variety of services for different providers. 

If the current branch network is to continue shrinking at the rate it is, banks will need to find a way to innovate their services to ensure customer needs are being met.

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