Robbed of Banks?

IMG_4780Site of the former NatWest in Wanstead

With South Woodford’s Barclays set to close in February, and with NatWest having left Wanstead in October 2023, our high streets have suffered another blow, says Delia Ray

News that Barclays on George Lane will close on 23 February means no high street banks will remain throughout Wanstead and Woodford. In a remarkably short time, bustling branches of banks once competing on every street corner have become empty husks – or even been reinvented as an artisan bakery. 

The changes come on the back of a growing use of digital banking. Barclays state 94% of its South Woodford customers mostly bank online. They also say that fewer than 10 customers regularly use the branch for all their transactions. Other banks cite similar figures. Given these numbers, the banks claim it’s too expensive to staff branches. Perhaps it’s no surprise they are pulling out of smaller sites, to focus on densely populated areas such as Barkingside and Walthamstow – at least for now. Nationally, the number of bank and building society branches fell by about 34% between 2012 and 2021, according to the Office of National Statistics.

Closures force customers into challenging journeys. They also lead to fewer cash machines (at least, free ones). Research by the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) in 2022 found that older people, people in poor health or on lower incomes, and those less able to manage their finances, depend more on cash. In 2019, the FCA identified bank closures would affect much the same groups. 

People adept with computers, who pay for everything through their phone, may meet the loss of local branches with a shrug. But many who find online banking difficult welcome the support of bank staff. Transactions are not always straightforward. Small businesses which take cash will always need somewhere to deposit their takings.

What does this mean for Wanstead and Woodford? Fortunately, South Woodford recently regained its Post Office, where banking functions can still be carried out. As in Wanstead, visiting the Post Office to send a parcel or run through a passport application provides a sound reason to visit the High Street – and visit local shops at the same time. The Nationwide Building Society recently pledged to keep its current branches open until 2026, which means they’ll remain for now in George Lane, South Woodford.

But if local services continue their decline, one option for us may be a banking hub. The number of hubs – shared spaces letting customers of multiple banks perform everyday banking tasks – is growing across the UK. Sharing makes them more viable than a branch of a single bank. Post Office staff operate counter services, where you can withdraw and deposit cash and pay bills. Bank representatives visit at different times. It’s early days, but with queues forming outside hubs as far afield as Brixham and Rochford, this innovation could restore vanished services. It could even revitalise our high streets.

For more information on banking hubs, visit wnstd.com/bankhub