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Insider UK
Insider UK
Vicky Shaw & Peter A Walker

Bosses of major banks defend branch closures

Bosses of Britain’s biggest banks have insisted they remain committed to physical branches, after a string of recent closure announcements.

They also disagreed with suggestions that banks rely on customer inertia when it comes to accounts such as savings.

In November, HSBC said it planned to axe 114 UK branches from this April, following an announcement from NatWest in October that it would close 43 branches as more customers used solely online banking.

Speaking to the Treasury Committee about branch closures, Ian Stuart, chief executive of HSBC UK, said the bank is “absolutely committed to a physical footprint in the UK”.

He told the hearing: “We think it’s important, but we have to get it scaled properly for the long term.

“Customer behaviours started to change in 1982 with the advent of the cash machine, and it’s been on a journey from that point and it’s speeded up – through the pandemic it accelerated, there’s no question that customers changed their banking behaviours.”

Stuart said 98% of the bank’s transactions in December were digital.

Dame Alison Rose, chief executive of NatWest Group, said: “We’re seeing significant shifts in customer behaviour, but we recognise we need to look after all of our customers and make sure that we support particularly vulnerable customers.”

Lloyds Banking Group chief executive Charlie Nunn told MPs: “We remain very committed to our branch network.”

The bosses were also asked whether banks rely on customer inertia over moving accounts.

Matt Hammerstein, chief executive at Barclays, said: “I definitely refute the idea that we rely on inertia, I don’t think that’s in any way representative of the way we design products or the way we engage customers.”

He said customer feedback to Barclays suggested customers had lost their savings habits, and the bank had designed its product range to support them.

Stuart told the MPs: “Five and a half million emails went out recently to customers… we’re actively trying to bring customers on to the good savings products that we’ve launched.”

Asked whether that was marketing, Stuart said: “I think our products are very competitive; I would argue the vast majority of our customers do shop around.”

Nunn told the hearing: “When you look at instant access savings, we see between 5% to 7% of all of our balances churning - moving between our competitors - every month; so it’s one of the most actively moved products or services that we have.”

The bosses were also asked about borrowers and the mortgage market after mortgage rates jumped last autumn amid market volatility.

Rose said there was “huge disruption during the mini-budget when we saw gilts and the swap rate grow very quickly”, adding that while mortgage rates are coming down, the bank is helping customers to look at their balance sheets “and find the right answer for them”.

After the hearing, Jenny Ross, money editor at Which?, said: “For the significant minority of people who still rely on cash, having a local, easily accessible bank branch is essential.

“While it’s true that many consumers are making the switch to online banking, it would be wrong to assume that this means physical branches are no longer required or wanted by the millions of consumers who use cash every day, and rely on it to manage increasingly tight household budgets during the cost-of-living crisis.

“Our figures show that bank branches and free-to-use ATMs have been closing at an alarming rate in recent years, with a very real risk of leaving some of society’s most vulnerable, including the elderly, excluded from accessing essential banking services.”

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