I congratulate Christian Matheson on shepherding me and James Heappey to the Backbench Business Committee to secure the debate. I thank the Committee for allowing us the opportunity to have this debate, which is important. It is always a pleasure to follow Albert Owen. We agree on most things rural; our constituencies are not dissimilar. I was touched when Susan Elan Jones described that nonsensical hypothesis and the threshold of 15,000 people, and I instantly started to think about my constituency. No community there would reach that level, except the town of Aberystwyth and that would be seasonal—it would depend on a lot of students. I say that to illustrate the challenge of rurality.
The debate has been very good. We have heard about the cities and what I call semi-rural constituencies. I am going to talk about my constituency, which is particularly rural. It is 1,795 sq km, it has 147 villages and hamlets and 700 family farms—one large community. The hon. Member for Wells described Glastonbury, without the 200,000 visitors, as a smallish town with 10,000 people. A town of 10,000 people in my constituency would be a metropolis. The scenario is very different, but the people there have the same entitlements and same needs and they are still being let down by the attitude and practices of the commercial banks. That has been the message in almost every contribution that has been made.
In 2011 I spoke in a debate in this place about bank closures. The number of branches had halved, from 20,000 in 1988 to about 9,300 then, and that figure has dropped further since. We can have a debate about the reliability of statistics. That is perhaps something on which the banks themselves should reflect, but the University of Nottingham report—Mr Lammy alluded to this—said that
“the rate of closure has slowed more recently” and that seems to be the case only because of
“the much reduced stock of branches”.
Hardly a positive sign.
The decline is certainly not abating in rural areas. Over the past year, more than 600 bank branches have closed and now 1,200 communities have lost all their banks, putting our high streets and market towns in jeopardy. That is something the banks said would not happen—they said the last bank in the town would stay one way or another.
None of us can deny that there has been a shift in how many people access banking services. For many, that has led to more options and more flexibility from mobile and online banking. According to the British Bankers Association, mobile banking apps have become the No. 1 way that people bank, with 22 million downloads of banking apps, and that is forecast to increase hugely over the next few years. Like the hon. Member for Ynys Môn, I have a cheque book. I will keep it going as long as I can, or as long as the banks allow me.
Many businesses will bank either through call centres or distance banking relationship managers. I always think the description “relationship manager” is slightly inconsistent. The notion is that constituents of mine in west Wales will have a relationship manager in Swansea or Bristol—look at a map; it is a long way away. There is a disconnect between them and as a result local businesses suffer and sometimes the advice that is given can be problematic. The requirement is for local managers who understand the business in the area. That is hugely important and can make a huge difference to the small and medium-sized businesses that they are there to serve.
The issue of broadband and mobile coverage is hugely important. My constituency is in the bottom 10 in the UK in terms of broadband speeds and actual coverage. Next Wednesday, I have a debate in Westminster Hall, for those who are interested in that matter in a Welsh context. That is hugely significant for the debate we are having as is the issue of physical access to a bank. I live six miles from the great metropolis of Aberystwyth. I have the luxury of a car; I own one. I have the luxury of a train and a bus.