Edinburgh bank closures: MP calls for 'community right to physical banking services'

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Plans to shut Royal Bank of Scotland and TSB branches in Leith came under fire during a debate at Westminster as the area's SNP MP Deidre Brock called for stronger protection against bank closures. 

She claimed banks appeared to "massage" statistics to justify closing branches and suggested they could be breaking the Equalities Act, which requires service providers to ensure equal access.

The RBS branch in Bernard Street, Leith, is due to close.  Picture: Google.The RBS branch in Bernard Street, Leith, is due to close.  Picture: Google.
The RBS branch in Bernard Street, Leith, is due to close. Picture: Google.

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Ms Brock said the withdrawal of local banking services hit older people, people with disabilities and small businesses.  And she called for a community right to physical banking services.

The Royal Bank of Scotland announced last month that it was closing 18 of its 86 branches across Scotland, including Bernard Street in Leith, as well as those in Bruntsfield Place, Nicolson Street and Newbridge. And less than three weeks later the TSB said the closure of 10 branches in Scotland, including Leith and Haddington.

Ms Brock told fellow MPs it was becoming a too familiar story. “Yet more bank branches are set to bite the dust as the network rapidly shrinks amidst woolly promises of support and training for vulnerable customers.

“Selective statistics are spun to show that counter services just aren't being used enough, leaving most of us puzzled when we see the local branch still bustling with life - and that's certainly the case for the Leith RBS.

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“I think it is felt that some of these statistics are being massaged to suit the bank's purposes - that's the impression many of us have gained.”

She said until recently the area had been well-served by banks, but now the Bank of Scotland would be left as the last high street bank in Leith - "and for how long, who knows". "When even the most densely populated art of Scotland is down to the last bank standing then you know you're in trouble. I find the decision absolutely baffling.”

And she paid tribute to the staff at the RBS in Leith. "They are a legendary bunch, well known for going above and beyond for their customers. The branch has been a well-known and well-used fixture in the area and it should remain to serve the people of Leith into the future.”

Ms Brock said RBS was a once-proud Scottish brand which could trace its origins back to Edinburgh in 1727 at the time of the Scottish Enlightenment.

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“Taxpayers bailed them out when they needed it and still own a third of the business.  How often can we bemoan bank branch closures in this place while the Government sits on its hand and refuses to meaningfully intervene?

The Newbridge branch of the Royal Bank of Scotland.  Picture: GoogleThe Newbridge branch of the Royal Bank of Scotland.  Picture: Google
The Newbridge branch of the Royal Bank of Scotland. Picture: Google

“The speedy decline in branches is alarming - almost 6,000 have gone across the UK, at a rate of 54 a month since 2015.  Do we just accept this sleep-walking into a cashless society and the deepening of the digital divide?”

She said the Financial Conduct Authority had powers to protect cash services but not bank branches. Banks were able to go through a tick-box exercise to comply with guidance and press ahead with closures unimpeded. “We need to introduce a community right to physical banking services.”

And she called on the Government to speed up the setting up of “banking hubs” - a shared counter service operated by Post Office employees, where customers of any bank can withdraw and deposit cash, pay bills and carry out other banking business.

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She said: “Since 2015 we’ve seen almost 635 branches close in Scotland, yet only nine hubs open and 15 sites recommended as suitable. At best it's only scratching at the surface of problems created by the loss of our branch networks.

“Perhaps communities shouldn’t have to wait until the last branch leaves their area before banking hubs will even be considered, then face lengthy delays before anything gets done. With co-ordinated efforts from everyone involved locally and nationally surely we can get the roll-out widened and accelerated.”

Edinburgh West Lib Dem MP Christine Jardine also took part in the debate, citing the case of a constituent who was going to be badly hit by the closure of the Newbridge RBS. “Her autistic son needs cash every day and she will now have to get a bus to a different part of the city to get him cash because there is no post office available either.”

Replying for the Government, Bim Afolami, Economic Secretary to the Treasury, said nine in ten adults now banked online or used a mobile app while only one fifth regularly use a bank branch.  “This does not mean we should do away with in-person banking services which are critically important for many people.”

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But he said the Government did not believe that banks had contravened the Equalities Act. “They are bound to make reasonable adjustments, when necessary, in the way they deliver their services.”

He said banking hubs were popular where they appeared. And he added: “To ensure there is no gap in the provision of services, the industry has committed that if a hub is recommended they will not close the branch it replaces for up to 12 months until that hub is opened. If there is a delay beyond that, a temporary  hub will be put in its place.”

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