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Local Banking Facilities: Ampthill

Volume 623: debated on Wednesday 15 March 2017

[Mr James Gray in the Chair]

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the provision of local banking facilities in Ampthill.

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. I am usually in that Chair myself; I had forgotten what it is like to be on this side.

In December, my office received an embargoed early notice from NatWest saying that it would shortly be announcing the closure of several of its branches in Bedfordshire, including two in my constituency. Although I have reservations about that programme of branch closures, I completely understand NatWest’s need to release and realise the funding behind some of its major assets. However, I am particularly concerned about the effect on the town of Ampthill. I have received a huge number of representations from local residents, who will be left with no bank or building society when NatWest finally closes its doors in June.

Despite the fact that online banking transactions with NatWest increased by 400% between 2010 and 2015, since 2011 transactions at the Ampthill branch have declined by only 20%, in contrast with other banks and branches across the country, according to NatWest’s own figures. Given that Ampthill’s population is growing and will continue to grow in the future, the branch’s customer base will get larger, not smaller. Although 65% of NatWest customers are now using online options, 35% will not or cannot, and a large part of the 65% who do will still need to use the branch at some point. Those general trends are even stronger in Ampthill, because it has a larger than average proportion of elderly people.

The switch to online banking most affects those who simply cannot navigate their way around cyberspace. The largest part of that group is the elderly and the vulnerable. If the Ampthill branch closes, the nearest NatWest will be almost 8 miles away, so people without cars face a long round trip on an infrequent local bus service to access banking services in Bedford. Ampthill is a market town based in the middle of a rural constituency, which unfortunately has—despite the fact that I have argued this case over many years—poor local public transport connections.

Jane Vass, the director of policy and research at the charity Age UK, said:

“If a branch closure happens in an area where bus services are poor”,

as is the case in Ampthill,

“or there is patchy internet service and mobile black spots, it can make banking life extremely difficult for the elderly.”

Despite being told that the closure will affect its customers in that way, NatWest is pressing on regardless.

Ampthill is a busy market town, and traders need access to banking services. I have received concerned representations from local businesses. NatWest currently provides a service to many smaller independent businesses, not just local traders; those businesses may not be able to undertake more complex business finance transactions after the branch closes. The local town council and Central Bedfordshire Council have both expressed deep concern that, as well as stifling existing business in Ampthill, the proposed closure will have a limiting effect on the start-up and growth of small and medium-sized enterprises.

I pay tribute to Ampthill town council and the lady mayor, who has run a campaign to raise public awareness of what NatWest is doing in the town and has gathered many signatures. Despite the best efforts of the town council and Central Bedfordshire Council—I believe another meeting is taking place tomorrow night—NatWest has remained absolutely intransigent in its position. Its behaviour, which impacts local businesses in that way, appears contrary to its wider commitment to support business growth, particularly given its initiatives such as the Entrepreneurial Spark.

NatWest’s publicity material about the proposed closure of the Ampthill branch suggests that customers can use the nearby post office as an alternative to banking in-branch. I cannot believe that anyone from NatWest has ever set foot inside the post office in Ampthill, which, according to local residents, is struggling for space as it is. At busy peak times there are long queues. I was told today that it is difficult to get staff to work in the post office.

The idea that the already busy, quite small rural local post office should do the heavy lifting for NatWest when it decides to leave is almost preposterous. Only the simplest of transactions can be done in the post office. The deal between the Post Office and the banks is specifically designed to embrace basic—that is the key word—banking services. In a small village or town that had other branches available, that would be an acceptable compromise, but Ampthill’s banking needs are more complex and cannot be served by the post office branch alone.

Ampthill town council has run a valiant campaign to stop the closure. It told me that the post office branch into which NatWest wants to send its elderly customers and local businesses has poor accessibility for the disabled or infirm. The nearby town of Flitwick is slightly larger than Ampthill and has a smaller proportion of elderly people, yet Barclays bank is absolutely committed to its presence there. In fact, my office is in the process of arranging for me to visit that branch to have a briefing on what it is undertaking to ensure it can continue to serve the local community by harnessing, not bowing to, current banking trends.

The residents and civil leaders of Ampthill are very clear that they do not want to lose their last bank branch. The town council’s petition has so far gathered 2,432 signatures, and there is an active Facebook group calling on NatWest to reverse its decision. I am concerned that NatWest has shown little willingness to work with the community. The one theme running through this is NatWest’s disturbing brick wall impact on the local community. There should not be a binary choice between the branch either staying open in its current form or closing its doors for good. My preferred option is for NatWest to share premises with another business to reduce overheads but maintain its presence and services in the town.

As quoted in the money section of a national newspaper, the Royal Bank of Scotland—NatWest—

“says branches will continue to play a ‘vital role’ for customers, providing a ‘failsafe when things go wrong and customers need a hand sorting it out’.”

NatWest customers in Ampthill will find little comfort in those warm words when their local branch closes in June.

Many of us have seen across the UK, not only in our own constituencies but when visiting other constituencies, that when a major bank decides to close its doors, it often leaves behind some form of presence—often a cash machine or night bank safe facilities for local businesses. I visited a bank recently that had moved from its main branch and taken a small shop on the high street. It had one cashier and a lobby area with cash machines and bank safes that could be accessed at night.

I understand that the property in Ampthill is fairly huge, and it obviously has a high market value, but I do not understand why NatWest has this “all or nothing” attitude and why it cannot say to the residents of Ampthill, “We are leaving your town, but we are leaving this behind. We are not deserting you. We are leaving some facilities behind for local businesses and local people.”

To leave Ampthill with absolutely zero in the way of banking facilities seems almost irresponsible, and shows a fundamental lack of understanding of the local community, yet through schemes such as Entrepreneurial Spark and others, NatWest makes much in its marketing of understanding the needs and concerns of local people. Its behaviour in Ampthill, however, shows the opposite—it does not understand the needs of the local people or of local business. NatWest has its hands over its ears when requests are made to leave behind some form of banking facility, and there is no fail-safe. My constituents will face a round trip of 15 or 16 miles to banking facilities in Bedford.

NatWest is a business and it is beyond the remit of the Treasury to instruct a bank to behave in a certain way. There is, however, a strong working relationship between the Government and the banking sector. We know that because when the banking sector fails the Government and local people pick up the tab—Ampthill residents, through their taxes, have helped to pick up the bill for failed banks, only to be repaid by NatWest, a recipient bank, walking away and turning its back on local people. Recently, I think I heard a figure of 72% in connection with one bank paying back its debt to the people—that was not NatWest.

I know that the Minister has to be brief in his response and there is not a great deal he can say, but beyond the remit of the debate I ask him to use his good offices to press NatWest to be slightly more aware of the needs of local people, in particular when those people are picking up the debts of banks or the costs of bank mismanagement and inappropriate behaviour. NatWest should bear that in mind when it decides to walk away, and it should consider leaving at the very least a cash machine and night-banking facilities for the people of Ampthill. Only 11% of all cash machines are in rural areas, which Ampthill counts as, although those areas would seem to need cash machines more than anywhere else.

I congratulate Barclays for not behaving in the same way as NatWest in a neighbouring town and for being far more diverse in looking at ways in which it can continue to serve the local community. It is time for NatWest to step up to the plate and to do the same in Ampthill.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this afternoon, Mr Gray. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Bedfordshire (Nadine Dorries) for securing this important debate on behalf of her constituents. She is clearly a very loud voice for her area, and I am sure that NatWest will be listening carefully not only to what she has said, but to what I am about to say.

What is clear to me from the points made today, which were all very good, and from the many letters that I receive regularly from other hon. Members on this subject, is that we all agree on the vital role that banks and building societies play in our local communities, particularly rural communities. As Economic Secretary, I am committed to a financial services system that delivers for all its customers throughout the UK. It does not matter who people are, where they live, what they do or how old they are; it is important to deliver to everyone. We all need the industry to help us to manage our money and to achieve our life goals. Banks and building societies should be there to help everyone, at every stage of life.

I will talk about adapting to change. Banks have made a lot of progress to adjust to the wider changes to the way in which we are banking in the modern era. The banking industry estimates that the number of people going into branches to do their banking has fallen by roughly a third since 2011. RBS reports that, between 2010 and 2015, its customers’ online and mobile transactions increased by 400%. The British Bankers Association reports more than 7,000 banking app logins a minute in 2015, which was a 50% rise on the previous year. Many of us in this place, too, have reduced our use of high street bank branches as it has become easier to do more online.

Such changes are leading to tough decisions for the banking industry. Some banks are investing in branch networks, some are consolidating their networks and some are establishing themselves as digital only. It is not for Government to intervene in those commercial decisions, although it is right for us to support access to the banking services that people need. Bank branches remain important to many customers. The Government want to ensure that the industry responds to changes in the way in which we bank while ensuring that it caters for customers who still need access to a branch.

My hon. Friend mentioned post offices. The post office network of more than 11,500 branches enables customers to have access to their bank accounts, withdraw money, deposit cash and cheques, and check balances. She might be pleased to know that in January this year the Post Office announced that it had reached an agreement with all the banks to allow more banking customers to access a wider range of services at the post offices than ever before.

I understand that point, which may be applicable to post office facilities housed in buildings that are appropriate for the extra business. In Ampthill, however, that is not the case. As I said, this lunchtime I was told by someone in Ampthill that the post office there struggles to find staff and is in small premises, which are very cramped—just try buying a stamp there at any busy time in the year. Although the Post Office has agreed to take over for those banks, we know that post office closures have been a problem throughout the UK for quite some time now. A local post office is neither predictable nor assured, and in Ampthill its facilities are certainly not appropriate.

My hon. Friend makes a reasonable point. In the wider context, it is important to say that 99% of personal and 75% of business customers will be able to carry out their day-to-day banking at post offices up and down the country as a result of the new agreement.

The post office in Ampthill is opposite the NatWest bank, in McColl’s store and next to the Woodhead Horns repair shop. Next to the bank and opposite the post office is Cambridge Wine Merchants, so I understand that Ampthill is a flourishing, attractive place for people to visit to shop. The banking facilities are an important part of that, but it is worth saying that post offices enjoy longer opening hours than banks, with many open on a Sunday. Furthermore, the changes in the new agreement will help with our frequent worry, as MPs, about our post offices closing down. The additional services and responsibilities will ensure that they are more likely to continue successfully.

The Post Office is also carrying out investment in and modernisation of 7,000 post offices throughout the country, to make the network more sustainable in the long term. In Ampthill, I hope that means that the cloud has a silver lining. It is worth adding that the Post Office is the largest retailer open on Sundays, it has a bigger network even than Tesco, and I am keen to see financial services on our high streets throughout the country. The access to banking protocol means that when a bank decides to close a branch it must think very carefully about the consequences of doing so. It must engage with its customers, it must consider their needs and it must identify ways for its customers to continue banking after the branch has closed. That analysis must be made public.

I am pleased to say that all the major high street banks have signed up to the protocol. The British Bankers Association appointed Professor Russel Griggs to carry out an independent “one year on” review of the protocol. He published that review last November and made several recommendations to improve how the protocol operates. The Government welcome that review, and we are pleased to see the industry commit to further improvements to protect people affected by closures. There is already evidence of improved industry behaviour in places such as Ampthill. RBS, the parent of NatWest, has committed to providing customers with six months’ notice of planned closures rather than the 12 weeks stipulated in the protocol, and it did so in Ampthill. That is good news for my hon. Friend’s residents, who will have more time to plan for change.

I should also say that customers could vote with their feet and switch their accounts to a bank with a branch nearer to them. My hon. Friend mentioned Flitwick, which is 3 miles away, where Barclays is clearly doing a good job. Perhaps people will consider that option. I can confirm that I have heard that NatWest has committed to retaining an ATM in Ampthill when the branch closes. That is good news and another example of positive industry behaviour.

I thank the Minister for his forbearance. I have had a similar promise in writing from NatWest, but when it is asked to give that promise at public meetings, it gives no such assurance to the local community. It is good that he said that on the record. I, too, have said it, but NatWest is not doing that in local meetings.

I am not really in a position to tell NatWest how to run its business, but here we are in a public forum that is being recorded and is available for all to see. Having heard that an ATM is promised, I would be disappointed if one were not delivered. I can be quite clear about that. I should say that I am sure that that promise is a result of my hon. Friend’s work and campaigning with local residents, who clearly see this as an important issue.

I will continue to keep a close eye on this matter. My hon. Friend will be aware that hundreds of towns, villages and even cities up and down the country are seeing changes in financial services. I try to take an interest in them all, but as she succeeded in securing this debate, I will take an even closer look and keep an eye on her area in particular.

I understand my hon. Friend’s concerns and the concerns of many other Members, who do a good job of standing up for their local communities. I encourage the industry to think creatively about how banks continue to serve their customers and how the impact of branch closures can be minimised. Banks and building societies need to balance customer interests, market competition and other commercial factors when considering their strategies. Although the Government do not intervene in such commercial decisions, we will continue to push to ensure that everyone can access the banking services that they need. I thank my hon. Friend for raising these important issues. This has been a good debate, and I look forward to visiting her part of the world in the near future to use the cashpoint, the wonderful wine merchants and the horn repairers.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.