Something curious has happened in the last five years to Britain’s banks: They’re literally disappearing from our high streets. Since 2015, banks and building societies closed (or scheduled the closure) of 3,509 branches since January 2015.
That’s a rate of around 55 each month. NatWest alone shuttered 638 branches, by far the most branches overall. These represented almost half of NatWest’s branch network. Instinctively, it’s easy to view these closures negatively.
Branches are closing – but here’s the thing: that’s okay. If these branches were simply not being replaced by another infrastructure, then yes, we’d be fit to panic. The reality is, however, the closures herald a new era in how financial service providers and their customers interact.
How I learned to stop worrying and love digital
Speaking to The Guardian about the trend in branch closures, Which?’s money editor Jenny Ross noted that, “Bank branches play a crucial role within communities, serving consumers and businesses alike”.
But this statement perhaps misses the wood for the trees. She’s at least partly correct: Banks do indeed play a crucial role in communities, but banks aren’t the same thing as the brick and mortar buildings that contain them. The important bit is the services they render.
In Ross’s defence, she did absolutely hit the nail on the head later on in the article, noting that, “the [financial services] industry must ensure no one is left behind by the digital transition and that when banks shut their doors, they don’t shut their customers out of important banking services.”
That’s the critical point here, forget about branches and brick-and-mortar. There’s a whole new finance and banking infrastructure blossoming in the void left by branch closures. But – and this is a big but – this trend has to be inclusive. Instead of worrying about branch closures, we have to ensure people can access what comes next. That means reliable internet in every corner of this nation.
Truth is, for banking to develop and improve branches need to fall to the wayside. Although it might not always seem obvious, their disappearance is actually good news. It’s perhaps painful in the short term but it’s important to not lose perspective