UK banks told to 'properly' assess impact of branch and ATM closures

·3 min read
The FCA said some banks and building societies were not 'doing enough to properly understand the impact' of their decisions. Photo: Daniel Leal/AFP via Getty
The FCA said some banks and building societies were not 'doing enough to properly understand the impact' of their decisions. Photo: Daniel Leal/AFP via Getty

UK banks and building societies have been told to do more to assess the impact of branch closures, reductions to their services and removal of ATMs under new City regulations.

The Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) criticised lenders for not thoroughly examining how branch closures affect their customers, telling them to consult more widely before taking action.

It said some banks and building societies were not "doing enough to properly understand the impact of these changes and to keep their customers informed".

In a statement on Tuesday, the regulator called on lenders to communicate more widely on possible cutbacks, including engaging with "other groups such as local charities and councils to understand the wider impact from changes to services".

"Banks are closing branches, shutting ATMs and changing opening times without fully understanding the impact it has on people locally, or letting them know what’s going on," said Sarah Coles, senior personal finance analyst at Hargreaves Lansdown.

"It could be devastating for vulnerable people who rely completely on their branch. The FCA is proposing new rules to ensure they work harder to understand the full impact of what they’re doing."

Read more: UK faces acute shortage of free-to-use ATMs, study says

The watchdog issued an update on its guidance to cover companies that partially close a branch in the same way as it does to full closures.

It is proposing to define a "partial closure" as a long-term reduction in branch opening hours or days or a reduction in branch services, like the removal of a counter, if this would significantly impact customers.

This would also capture extended periods of closure lasting six months or longer, which might otherwise be seen as "temporary", including closures due to long-term building works.

A separate analysis revealed that the UK is facing an acute shortage of free-to-use ATMs, leaving consumers who rely on face-to-face banking services and cash to pay for everyday essentials at risk of being cut adrift.

According to the consumer group Which?, 4,685 bank branches have shut their doors, with a further 226 already scheduled to close by the end of this year, with 12,178 free-to-use ATMs axed.

Read more: ATMs: FCA to mandate banks to ensure access to free cash withdrawal

In 2020, initial guidance on branch closures and conversions was published in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic and the FCA said it was continuing to monitor cash access points and engage with firms on closure plans.

The UK Government recently confirmed that the FCA would be given powers to make sure cash remained accessible.

Sheldon Mills, executive director of consumers and competition at the FCA, said: "We expect firms to continue to offer easy and accessible banking services to their customers, and this is even more important as the country faces a cost of living crisis.

"We saw firms successfully do this and support consumers through the pandemic, and this standard needs to continue with firms really thinking about their customers, especially those in vulnerable circumstances, and ensuring they continue to meet their needs."

The announcement comes as Lloyds Banking Group (LLOY.L) said last month that it will close another 28 branches as customers increasingly move online, meaning the owner of Lloyds and Halifax banks will shut 88 branches by the end of the year.

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