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Crunch point for cash as ATMs and bank branches close

Emma Lunn
Written By:
Emma Lunn

A survey of more than 2,000 people found that more than half (57%) of consumers have experienced one or more issues with accessing cash or a bank branch in the past year.

Researchers from Which? found that over the past 12 months, a quarter (25%) experienced at least one cashpoint issue. This includes one in six (17%) that said a cashpoint they used had run out of cash or not been working when needed, and one in eight (12%) that said a cashpoint they used had been removed or had introduced charges.

Meanwhile, about four in 10 (43%) respondents said they had experienced bank branch issues, including the closure of a bank branch they used to visit or that a branch had reduced its opening hours.

Which? has analysed Link data and found that over the past 18 months the total number of ATMs in service has dropped by almost 8,000, equivalent to 13% of the total number of machines.

Most of this decline occurred between March and May 2020, during the early months of the Covid-19 pandemic. But since May 2020 there has been relatively little further change – indicating that these closures will be a permanent reduction to the network.

Which? also found that from the first national lockdown in March 2020 until the end of restrictions in July 2021 there were 801 bank branch closures, with another 103 set to close their doors by the end of the year.

The analysis by the consumer champion also found that there are large variations in the proportion of cash machines that charge for withdrawals across the UK. For example, the proportion of pay to use machines in the West Midlands (28%) is nine percentage points higher than that in the South East (19%).

Which?’s findings come despite recent research published by the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) and the Payment Systems Regulator (PSR), which shows that most people have reasonable access to cash through a combination of bank, building society or Post Office branches, and ATMs.

The research estimated that more than nine in 10 (95%) of the UK population are within 2km of a free cash access point, but this falls to three quarters (77%) for those living in rural areas.

Which? is concerned that the current lack of oversight regarding the changes to the cash system will mean that access could continue to reduce at speed, leaving increasing numbers of those reliant on cash without local access to it. The consumer champion wants the government to introduce legislation to protect consumers who are reliant on cash and most at risk from closures.

Gareth Shaw, Which? head of money, said: “These stark figures show the extent of the damage caused by the pandemic to the already fragile cash system, and demonstrate the consequences that this is having on consumers who are trying to withdraw cash.

“While many people can now bank digitally, millions of people are not yet ready or able to do so. It is consumers who are looking to withdraw and spend cash in nearby shops or the high street who will be hardest hit if they are left without a way to access it locally. This should serve as a wakeup call to the government and the FCA. The cash system is continuing to crumble and legislation on safeguarding access to cash must be introduced swiftly.”