I join Christian Matheson in thanking the Backbench Business Committee for awarding us the debate. As he says, people should not mistake the sparsity of Members in the Chamber for a lack of enthusiasm for this cause. Many of my colleagues have told me just how significant it is to their constituencies, and it is just a shame that, for Members on both sides of the House, there are some distractions at the moment.
The issue of bank branch closures is gathering pace. There were 222 in 2013 and 681 last year, and given that there have already been 333 this year, it appears that the pace will quicken still further. The issue was drawn to my attention in my constituency by the fact that there are too many empty buildings on our high streets which used to be banks. There have been closures in, for instance, Wells, Shepton Mallet, Burnham-on-Sea and, most recently, Glastonbury. I pointed out during Prime Minister’s Question Time some months ago that there was still a chance of saving at least one of Glastonbury’s banks, but all four of them went in one year, and three within 14 weeks. Today’s debate is timely, because the following week there were 200,000 people in fields not far outside Glastonbury. The idea that the town does not have a single bank must seem quite remarkable to all Members.
The Last Bank Standing campaigners in Glastonbury have fought their corner in a formidable fashion. You will be entertained to learn, Mr Speaker, that when Lloyds closed, it marked the closure by putting a mock-up of a black horse in a coffin, feet up, and marching it out of the town in a funeral procession for banking. I am not sure that those in the bank’s PR department were particularly enthused by that. The sad reality is, however, that no matter how hard the campaign group worked to save those banks, their work was ultimately to no avail.
Having just embarrassed Lloyds, I will now praise NatWest, which saw an opportunity to take a mobile bank into the town occasionally. That service is very welcome and many people value it, but it is there for only an hour or two a week. The community is now, very creditably, considering the options for a credit union or community bank, but the hurdles are significant. It is extraordinarily difficult for a community to establish something that is not just a credit union for the purpose of saving, but a bank with functionality.
I do not think that it should have been possible for a town the size of Glastonbury, with such a vibrant economy, to lose all its banks. That suggests to me that the access to banking protocols that were agreed during the last months of the last Government are simply not doing the job that they were intended to do. I shall return to that point later, but one of the challenges posed by the protocols is the requirement for community impact statements to be produced, and in those statements the usage of the banks is hotly contested. The banks say one thing, and campaigners say another. When the Federation of Small Businesses surveyed businesses in the Glastonbury area that were using local banks, 750 of them responded. Glastonbury contains only about 10,000 people, but it serves a much wider hinterland. How extraordinary it is that 750 businesses should reply to a survey entitled “Glastonbury Bank Closures”! That tells us just what an important issue this is.
There is also the challenge of rurality. There are transport links in areas such as mine that do not allow people to travel freely from one town to another to do their banking when the bank on their high street has closed, and the people whom that disadvantages most are the most vulnerable and the isolated in our society.