Banks may have long given up on cash...but millions of you haven’t
dmg media (UK)
Wealth & Personal Finance
WHATEVER regulators and Bank of England officials may say, cash continues to be the oil that helps drive the engine of our challenged economy. Hard cash – five pound notes, 50p coins – not cryptocurrencies. Although the big banks are not pushing us towards cryptocurrencies, they are eager (some would say over-eager) to change the way we bank. They want more done online or via an app – and less of it through use of a high street branch or ATM. More contactless, less use of hard cash. This desire to turn us all into digital customers explains why banks are closing branches in droves – 737 announced in just over a year, and plenty more to come. It is also why free-to-use ATM numbers are shrinking fast. Yet demand for access to cash – and cash deposit services – will not go away as quickly as maybe the banks wish. For many small businesses and elderly people, cash remains king. Key to the future of cash is effective legislation, followed by tough regulation – both of which have long been promised respectively by Government and the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA). Yet it seems increasingly unlikely that the better safeguarding of access that these two steps should guarantee is going to come in a hurry. We could be well into 2024 before the FCA starts properly tooling itself up to defend our right to cash. In the meantime, we must cross our fingers and hope that Cash Access UK comes to the rescue. This organisation has been given the onerous task of ensuring continued nationwide access to cash against a backdrop of branch and cash machine closures. Life isn’t easy for Cash Access UK. It is funded by the big banks – parsimony is their watchword – and its work is dictated by strict rules laid down by the banking behemoths. But, helped by cash machine network Link, this not-for-profit organisation has the right to allocate chunks of its budget to create banking hubs where communities have lost their last bank branch. These hubs, managed by the Post Office, allow customers of all the major banks and building societies to visit and do their banking – with some able to get help from one of their own bank’s staff. Cash Access UK’s record on establishing hubs is patchy, to say the least. Only four – out of 38 promised – are up and running, although two more (Troon, Ayrshire and Acton, West London) should come on stream in the next couple of months. The slow roll-out is not entirely the organisation’s fault. Suitable premises have to be found, leases must be signed, planning permission can take an age (especially in Scotland and Northern Ireland) and refurbishments don’t happen overnight. But officials believe once momentum starts, the quicker the roll-outs will become (currently, it is taking at least a year from the time a hub is recommended for it to be operating). Cash Access UK is also looking at installing temporary hubs in communities that lose their last bank branch before a permanent hub can be opened. This would reduce the time a community is left without a bank other than a local post office. In time, the organisation hopes to have a network of 200 hubs. Fanciful? Maybe, but it’s good that it is thinking big. I am sure Derek French, who has led the way on campaigning for banking hubs (with a lot of support, I hasten to add, from The Mail on Sunday) would do a victory jig if we got to 200. Cash Access UK is also looking at ways to make life easier for small businesses who need to bank cash deposits quickly and securely. This week, it will announce the piloting of new-style cash deposit services in 16 communities – including Ilfracombe in North Devon, Shanklin on the Isle of Wight and Holyhead on Anglesey. Post office-based, these pilots will use greater automation to ensure cash deposits are quickly counted – and include priority counters which small businesses can use to do their banking in privacy. In time, it is also hoped that the banks – gently egged on by Cash Access UK – will push some of their petty differences to one side and agree to adapting their ATMs so they can receive deposits from all bank customers, not just their own. An easy thing to do, I am reliably told. But we’re not there yet – with the likes of NatWest amenable to such a change and others (namely the one that likes to fill our screens with black horses) not so keen. A few days ago, I met up with Gareth Oakley, chief executive of Cash Access UK. Having spent more than 30 years in banking – with a focus on SMEs (small and medium-sized enterprises) – he’s optimistic that the pilots will encourage small businesses ‘to keep on accepting cash from their customers’. Let’s hope he’s right and that the pilots encourage the Post Office to make such user-friendly services the norm, not the exception. Access to cash. An imperative. Today, tomorrow and long into the future.