Kezia Dugdale: What to do if you’re sick of banks and payday lenders

A closed down bank in Portobello High Street
A closed down bank in Portobello High Street
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One of the most common complaints I hear is about local bank branches closing their doors.

It feels like yet another round of closures is announced every few months, and more than a third of Scotland’s banks have already closed since 2010.

It’s particularly devastating for people living in rural areas who are instead left to rely on a mobile bank in a van that visits once or twice a week.

There is a huge knock-on impact for high streets, with fewer customers visiting their local butcher, bookshop or newsagents and the economy suffering as a result. That’s something I persuaded MSPs on Holyrood’s economy committee to investigate.

In large cities like Edinburgh, we are never going to be left without any bank branches so that’s why much of the political focus has been elsewhere, in small towns and villages.

But Edinburgh has actually seen the steepest drop in bank numbers, falling 60 per cent, while the figure is just 20 per cent in some parts of the country. This discrepancy has largely been overlooked, yet it is having a major impact on people in the capital.

READ MORE: Helen Martin: Who runs the country: banks or our MPs?

Elderly residents or families in our city who cannot afford or can’t access the internet are being punished the most. And while banking services have popped up in many Post Offices, these too are being closed down – particularly in south Edinburgh.

Rightly, RBS has come under the most scrutiny. Taxpayers bailed out the bank when it was near collapse – and it’s the UK Government’s responsibility as the majority shareholder to ensure people are not abandoned by the bank now.

The trebling of profits by RBS which was announced last month will be of no comfort to the communities in Scotland still facing bank closures.

And then it emerged earlier this month that performance-related targets for signing customers up to mobile banking apps exist for RBS staff – appearing to fly in the face of claims made to MPs. It’s little wonder that customers are angry.

But there has been one very positive announcement in the world of finance: the opening of a new community bank in Leith. It was opened by actor Michael Sheen, who founded the End High-Cost Credit Alliance.

Castle Community Bank is a not-for-profit credit union and its directors are all volunteers.

READ MORE: Actor Michael Sheen to open new Leith credit union

I’m proud to be one of its new members. If it looks like a bank, that’s because it is – just one that’s run ethically and in the interests of people, not profit.

I’ve campaigned against payday lenders for years, and in April 2013 I took to the streets of Leith with local councillor Gordon Munro and others to highlight the fact there were no less than 11 cash loan shops within two minutes of the Newkirkgate.

Our Debtbuster campaign had three goals: to take on payday lenders street by street; to improve debt relief for people in trouble; and to promote the alternative – credit unions. What a huge credit to all those involved in the campaign that there is now a community bank on Great Junction Street.

While politicians must, and will, continue to put pressure on RBS and the other big banks to keep local branches open, I hope more cooperatives open their doors to provide a real alternative for people across Edinburgh.