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ABC News

Regional Banking Taskforce calls on banks to improve communication when closing branches

A federal government taskforce set up to measure the impact of bank closures on regional towns has found more could be done by the big four banks to support affected residents.

A final report handed down on September 30 said banks should improve communication with regional customers and ensure local councils were forewarned of any closures.

The Regional Banking Taskforce was established in October last year and included representatives from local government, Australia Post and the banks.

Australian Local Government Association president Linda Scott said the recommendations would help communities during the transition away from a physical branch.

"I want to thank the taskforce for listening to our concerns and incorporating our feedback," Ms Scott said.

"When councils have a full picture of what is happening with branch closures then they can help communicate these decisions and alternative banking options to their community."

No sign of closures slowing down

The Midwest town of Carnamah has become the latest to lose its only bank after Westpac announced it would close its branch in February.

Staff were notified of the decision last week.

Westpac pointed to a decline in face-to-face banking as the reason behind the closure.

Customers will soon be forced to drive to Dongara, 130-kilometres away, to access a branch.

Westpac announced similar news about closures last month in Tom Price, Collie, Bridgetown and Wongan Hills.

Wongan Hills Progress Association president Stephen Clarke said financial institutions were being driven by profits instead of people.

"I just can't believe a major corporate like Westpac would consider closing the only bank in town," Mr Clarke said.

"You're asking people to do a 90km to 120km drive, and then turn around and come home again. This is unacceptable and disingenuous."

Lessons from down the road

The Wheatbelt town of Bruce Rock has been without a branch for two years, after a community bank run by residents folded due to a lack of support.

Most residents who require in-person banking now drive 50km to Merredin.

Community bank co-founder and cafe owner Merredith Mckenzie-Thornton said not having a local branch had created considerable issues.

"Whenever you have people going out of town for banking other businesses will suffer, because they will spend money over there [in Merredin] because it's just convenient," she said.

"We have a safe both here and at home because we do have to unfortunately keep sums of money on hand because you can't just pop down to the bank and get some.

"We're lucky we've only got Merredin half an hour away, but for places like Wongan Hills, whose closest bank I'm assuming is Northam, that's a long distance to travel," she said.

Closures part of a plan

Finance Sector Union national secretary Julia Angrisano said the rising rate of branch closures in recent years was the result of a deliberate ploy by the big banks.

"Over the last five years, bank staff have had targets imposed on reducing over-the-counter transactions and increasing the migration to digital or online banking," Ms Angrisano said.

"Essentially, it's been part of their plan.

"This is a huge crisis … we need to be taking some serious action to stop this rate of closure," she said.

In a statement, Westpac said these decisions were driven by a decline in face-to-face banking and the bank would offer affected customers the chance to use a reduced service at the local post office.

Wongan Hills residents attended a crisis meeting last month after learning their branch would close.

They are hoping to speak with a Westpac representative in the coming weeks in a bid to maintain some local banking services.

Mr Clarke said the banks needed a wake-up call.

"Show some spine, look at the decision and look at the people you are hurting because we are people, we are not just a number," he said.

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