Business

Village fights to keep its last bank branch

HSBC protest sign
Image caption Forest Row's HSBC branch is the focus of a campaign to keep it open

Forest Row in East Sussex is a thriving community.

On the edge of Ashdown Forest, where Pooh Bear and Piglet used to play pooh-sticks, it has more than 5,000 inhabitants and it also has 200 businesses.

It has a church, several pubs, and a busy street of shops, including a butcher, a baker, and somewhere, even a candle-maker.

But shortly it will have no bank.

HSBC is shutting its branch here on 23 September, because not enough people are using it.

It blames the growth of telephone and internet banking.

From next month, customers will have to travel three miles to the nearby town of East Grinstead if they wish to visit a branch in person.

"A lot of businesses use the bank, particularly for change," says Dan Hawes, the local fishmonger.

"It's a real shame it's closing down."

Changing habits

HSBC says its branch in Forest Row is one of the most under-used in the country.

Image caption Fishmonger Dan Hawes is one of the local businessmen who wants the bank to stay open

That is not just because of the internet.

During bank opening hours, many customers are busy working, and do not have time to visit the branch anyway.

"Our customers' habits are changing," said a bank spokesman.

"They're increasingly using branches where they work. Our network has to be fit for purpose, and we have to ensure that our branches are located in areas where they are used," he added.

By contrast, some urban areas have seen new branches opening.

Virgin Money is planning to open its first four branches this year, and Metro has a similar number, all in the London area.

The listening bank?

Cheryl Hawkins, a parish councillor in Forest Row, refuses to accept defeat.

I met her as she was touring the village with a petition. So far she has collected over a thousand signatures.

Even though she herself uses the internet for basic banking, she still uses the branch on a regular basis.

She accepts that banks cannot afford to keep branches open that are not being used, but she claims that some services have deliberately been run down.

"The point is without the public, they don't make the profits. Without their clients they will not exist," Cheryl says.

The village has even offered to allow HSBC to set-up a part-time office in the parish hall, but they were told that would still be too expensive.

"The fact they're advertising being the world's local and listening bank is really...it's hollow," she says.

How many more?

A senior consultant in the banking industry is warning that 80% of bank branches could close within the next ten years, because of the growth of the internet.

Image caption Forest Row's HSBC branch is simply not busy enough, the bank says

Statistics from the banking industry this week confirmed that rural branches continue to close at the rate of three a week, but some experts think that could accelerate.

According to the British Bankers Association (BBA), which represents all the city and high-street banks in the country, more than forty-four million customers have registered to bank online.

While many of those customers will continue to use bank branches as well, the figures suggest that most people find the internet quicker and easier to carry out basic banking transactions.

"We have mobile and internet banking used by most of the population," says Chris Skinner, a respected banking consultant, and author of the book "The future of banking".

He now predicts that virtually all the branches in rural areas will close in the next ten years.

"I think four out of five branches will just disappear," he says, although he admits that his is an extreme point of view.

"You'll end up with automated machines in most places, and branches with humans in main city conurbations."

Down in Ashdown Forest, the villagers may wish to follow one of Pooh Bear's most famous pieces of advice: "If the person you are talking to doesn't appear to be listening, be patient. It may simply be that he has a small piece of fluff in his ear."

But in this case it appears the bank may well have been listening.

It is just that customers no longer have time to visit their local branch.

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