Fears Fenland town could become a 'cash desert'
A local family has described bank opening times in a Fenland town as a postcode lottery and are calling for a better service.
The Rev Anthony Mitchell has complained to the Nationwide Building Society about the opening hours of the Wisbech branch and fears a cut in its opening times will eventually lead to the branch closing.
He claims a cut in opening hours has "effectively stopped his grandmother from being able to use the bank.
The Rev Mitchell said: "Most of my family bank at the Wisbech branch of Nationwide Building Society. It is now closed from Saturday and does not re-open until Tuesday. When the branch is open it is only until 3pm, in March the branch closes even earlier at 2 pm.
"In comparison Peterborough and King's Lynn are both open Saturdays until 1pm and are open until 4.30pm weekdays.
"Barclays, HSBC, Lloyds, NatWest, Santander, TSB and Nationwide state that they are committed to the Access to Cash Action Group, however there are clear disparities in opening times depending on where you live.
"In Wisbech only the Halifax is now open on Saturdays, and most banks have reduced service times compared to their pre-pandemic levels. While shops and businesses have returned to normal operating times banks have not.
"Such limited opening times do not support customers or small businesses. My grandmother is 82 and her ability to bank has effectively been taken away from her as our family can only support her on the weekend.
"I am currently paying my grandmother's phone bill through my bank account and being repaid in cash to ensure that she has a working telephone, which is a lifeline for her.
"From Nationwide’s response there seems to be no indication of when or if these branches will return to pre-pandemic times."
Nationwide says it has increased opening times at branches like Wisbech by two hours since the start of the pandemic to help alleviate queues.
The Rev Mitchell said: "Nationwide states that 'whilst we would not be changing the times that our branches were closing and still on reduced hours it is hoped that by opening a further two hours we’d continue to meet the changing needs of members at that time, whilst continuing to ensure everyone’s safety'."
But he said: "I can not understand how reduced opening times and closures on Saturday increase customers safety. If anything, it may increase over crowdedness as customers may be forced to visit at busier times such as lunchtime instead of after work or at the weekends.
"I can not understand how banks and building societies that were profitable to open before lockdown have suddenly become unprofitable to do so.
"I do not believe Nationwide can know the demand for services after lockdown, if they no longer open at their pre-pandemic times. I fear the reduction in hours will only increase branch closures as this will be used as 'proof' that branches are used less.
"Nationwide also state that 'this year we made a decision to open prime locations (city centres) until 4.30pm from April during the week and on Saturdays until 1pm to give members more availability and access to cash/services'.
"This by its nature creates a postcode lottery and sends the message that more rural locations are not as important despite rural customers likely to be travelling further distances. In addition, King's Lynn is not a city and yet is considered a 'prime location' creating an inconsistency in Nationwide’s application of its policy.
"Finally, I made clear that my grandmother was an 82-year-old woman. Nationwide’s suggestion to use the 'phone' or their 'digital services to manage their money where they can, this will help us support our most vulnerable members during this difficult time' does not help my grandmother to pay her bills nor access her cash as she cannot use an ATM. I would certainly call her vulnerable.
"I fear Wisbech could become a cash desert as businesses and customers can’t get access to the cash they need. Card processing fees increase the cost to smaller businesses who do not have the financial leverage of the larger chain stores.
"I have already experienced price rises in Wisbech and I worry that businesses will have no choice to pass these card fees on to their customers increasing prices further.
"I understand that the Covid-19 outbreak has changed the habit of many customers, but I fear the pace of change is too much for some. If we take away cash from the most vulnerable in our society, we risk them struggling to manage their finances and needing support in ways that would have been unnecessary just a generation ago."
In a letter in response to the Rev Mitchell's complaint Wisbech branch manager Elena Millen said the building society had decided to only open prime locations until 4.30pm during the week and until 1pm on Saturdays from April but said all other locations, including the Wisbech branch opening times, would be reviewed on a regular basis.
She said: "We are asking all our members to visit our branches, or call us, if absolutely necessary and to use digital services to manage their money where they can."
And she concludes by stating the branch would be "more than happy to support you" if it was needed.