Santander Closures and Local Communities — [Philip Davies in the Chair]

Part of Backbench Business – in Westminster Hall at 2:57 pm on 14th February 2019.

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Photo of Mary Glindon Mary Glindon Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) (Farming and Rural Communities) 2:57 pm, 14th February 2019

It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I congratulate David Linden on securing a really important debate, as has been shown by today’s speeches. He opened it with a fantastic, detailed explanation of why it is so important to talk about how our communities will be affected by what is happening. The Backbench Business Committee must also be thanked for allowing the debate.

Last month, like everyone else, I was disappointed to receive a letter from Santander telling me that it had taken the difficult decision to close its branch in North Shields town centre on 9 May and that it was writing to all branch customers to let them know of the closure. Santander was keen to point out that it had reviewed the usage of the bank, quoting figures on the various other types of banking facilities of which customers who use the branch avail themselves. Sadly, it was clear from the letter that, without any prior customer consultation, Santander had decided that the North Shields branch did not fit in with its future plans for small digital branches or with the focus on larger community branches.

The letter went on to explain that, in accordance with the access to banking standard, the branch team, whose jobs we must remember are now under threat, will be advising branch customers about their options and, in particular, helping vulnerable customers to find alternative ways to bank locally. I am not sure that customers will be happy to learn that they have to change their banking habits. Many people do not trust online banking, as has been said, or telephone banking, because they do not see it as secure. Moreover, I do not think many people want to join the already long queues in our town centre post office, which is in the Co-op, to do their banking business over the counter. The case has already been made about the sensitivity of banking business.

The message in the letter is far from what is conveyed in Santander’s statement of vision and strategic priorities for 2016 to 2018, which remains on Santander’s website. Perhaps the bank changed that two-year vision at midnight on new year’s eve, but the statement, which I recommend that colleagues look at, is still there in black and white. It states:

“Our purpose is to help people and businesses prosper. Our aim is to be the best retail and commercial bank, earning the lasting loyalty of our people, customers, shareholders and communities. The Santander Way is how we do things in a Simple, Personal and Fair way.”

Importantly, its list of laudable strategic priorities includes communities. The bank states:

“We provide support to communities around the UK because we believe it helps us to build a successful business. By being deeply engaged in the communities where our branches, banking centres and offices are located, we can better understand and serve our customers.”

The customers of the 140 branches earmarked for closure may take that with a pinch of salt. Given that the Government supported the access to banking standard, will the Minister comment on whether the bank has shown that it is merely a tick-box exercise that is of little help to the people who are about to lose personal access to their bank?

[Andrew Rosindell in the Chair]

I accept that fewer people use banks and that many people trust them to operate their accounts online, which has affected banks’ decisions to close branches in recent years. However, Office for National Statistics figures cited by the Library reveal that my area in the north-east has the lowest number of bank and building society branches in the UK and the second-lowest number of branches per 100,000 residents. That is of great concern to me, as I hope it is to the Under-Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government, Jake Berry, in his role as Minister for the northern powerhouse.

When I consulted the very proactive North Shields chamber of trade and commerce about the branch closure, it made the important point that the town has a fairly high percentage both of customers who do not use the internet and of elderly people. Those are not necessarily the same community, but in both cases they rely on being able to go into the branch to conduct their banking business. The closure will result in significant difficulties for them, especially if they want to continue using counter services at Santander. They will have to travel either three miles up the coast to Whitley Bay or eight miles west to Newcastle city centre—and that is as the crow flies. Access to transport may be another problem in terms of their ability to bank locally.

The chamber also points out that the many local businesses that have to deposit cash regularly will now have to move bank or travel to another branch. When Santander leaves North Shields, we will be left with only two banks in the town centre. The chamber, which represents a number of businesses in the town, makes the solid point that closing a branch of a national bank has a disproportionately adverse effect on town centres. Sadly, a small shop whose owner has no other resources may have no choice but to close, but banks are bigger. They should avoid sending the message that they have lost interest in a community and that they prefer to support other places.

Bank closures are affecting our already suffering high streets and town centres, which should be helped to remain the hub of our communities, as every speech in this debate has pointed out. We must stress to the Government the need for their support. My plea to Santander is to work to its own values in relation to the proposed closures of the branch in North Shields and the other 139 branches. I hope the Minister will do all he can to urge the bank to reconsider its decision. If Santander truly wants to be

“the best bank in the UK”,

as it says it does, it should deliver on its own “Simple, Personal and Fair” culture and keep those branches open.