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I thank the member for that intervention. We have discussed that idea at the Economy, Energy and Fair Work Committee, and we covered it during our inquiry on the impact of bank closures. We recognised not only that a particular view needs to be taken when it is the last bank in town but that there needs to be recognition of the particular impact that such closures can have in communities in areas such as the Highlands and Islands, where banks can be spread far apart.
That is the story of the Highlands and Islands. Our geography has meant that local residents are more dependent than most in Scotland on these small towns and the services that they provide. Although closures are a national trend, it is locally that the impact is most keenly felt. The two proposed closures in Moray have received objections from the local community, and my colleague Douglas Ross MP has organised public meetings in both towns to put residents’ concerns to the Bank of Scotland.
The meetings were attended by representatives from Moray Council, from local community councils, from the Post Office and from local business organisations including the Lossiemouth Business Association and the Federation of Small Businesses. However, they were not attended by representatives of the Bank of Scotland, who were empty-chaired at both meetings. lt would be unreasonable not to acknowledge that the greatest proportion of branch closures has not been in the Highlands and Islands. That was among the findings of the committee’s inquiry on the subject, and I do not dispute it. However, as I have said, the geography of the region means that closures can have a disproportionate effect. In many cases, the nearest alternatives are often more distant and less accessible, particularly by public transport.
Highlands and Islands Enterprise found a significant increase in the use of mobile and online transactions, as the report it commissioned on access to banking services sets out. Many banks have expanded the scope of their remote banking options in recent years—for example, allowing cheques to be paid in online—and that is to be commended. However, as the HIE report notes, such access is dependent on strong connectivity, which, in many parts of my region, is simply absent.
That is partly why cash transactions remain more common, particularly in the context of the region’s many small and medium-sized enterprises; yet, as I said, it is unclear how residents are expected to adapt. Although adopting the lessons of digital inclusion will be key, there is still a role for branch-based banking. One commonly heard issue is to do with the use of post offices for banking services. As many constituents tell us, the post office network itself has declined, which can present a particular problem for island communities, from whom even a cash machine can be distant.
The committee’s findings extended to a number of barriers to the Post Office simply taking over wholesale the role of branch banking. Banking hubs also present a mixture of benefits and challenges, but they potentially integrate better with other community facilities.
The reality is that significant reductions in the banking services that are available to remote and rural communities continue to create problems, and we are still seeing closures where the alternatives are not clear. That is a negative for communities that have grown used to having a local branch. In many cases, even small branches can be a keystone in maintaining town centres, and businesses react to closures. Most people are dismayed by the banks’ retreat from the high street and the number of closures that have been announced. It is to those views from their own customers that the banks should be listening.