With growth of digital banking and uptick in smart phones banks look to cut costs
UK lenders plan to close record 762 branches as banks pivot towards digital space
Banks in Britain are set to close a record 762 branches this year, depriving more customers of access to in-person financial services as lenders cut costs by pushing business online.
The number of branches shut or earmarked for closure so far this year is more than the 583 closed in 2016 and is the most on record, according to a Reuters analysis of bank announcements, academic studies and government data.
Banks and building societies in Britain have been shutting branches at a rate of around 300 per year since 1989, a trend which has accelerated in recent years as lenders respond to pressure on profits by slashing costly brick-and-mortar outlets.
Royal Bank of Scotland is set to close 244 branches this year, Lloyds Banking Group will shut 195, while HSBC and Barclays will close 117 and 90 to 100 respectively.
That will leave Britain with around 8,000 bank branches by the end of the year, according to a Reuters calculation of the bank's statements, compared with 17,831 in 1989, according to data from the University of Nottingham.
The accelerating pace of closures has caused concern among lawmakers and campaigners, who say it is often the most vulnerable customers and businesses that bear the brunt as banks consolidate branches in big cities.
Reuters reported in June last year that Britain's largest banks are disproportionately closing branches in the lowest-income areas.
Politicians in a subsequent parliamentary debate said the findings showed the "quiet scandal" of branch closures, which research has showed can also halve lending to small businesses in impacted areas.
Bank executives say they are responding to changing patterns of customer behaviour and that they are providing alternatives for those who can't or won't bank online.
A spokeswoman for Co-Operative Bank, set to shut 10 branches this year, said for example its customers can do everyday transactions in any of 11,500 Post Office branches in Britain.
Barclays also said it provides banking access via some Post Office outlets, as well as offering some pop-up branches and video banking services, while a spokeswoman for banking industry body UK Finance said banks are investing in new ATMs and mobile bank branches to reach more rural communities.
Some newer competitors are also bucking the trend by growing their branch network.
Swedish lender Handelsbanken, which operates more than 200 branches in Britain, said in February it will keep expanding to take advantage as rivals scale back.
Metro Bank has opened 48 outlets since it started in July 2010 and plans to open a further eight to 10 this year, with a goal of growing to 110 by 2020, a spokeswoman said.
The bank's strategy, however, in common with most rivals, is to target major towns and cities, meaning gaps left in rural areas by the retreat of major lenders are unlikely to be plugged in the near future.
Nationwide in April this year offered a crumb of comfort to such areas, opening a community-supported branch in the Somerset town of Glastonbury which last year lost its remaining bank branches. It said it may open more such outlets, depending on the support of local communities.
Despite such measures, campaigners have been wondering how many bank branches will be left given the UK has around 25 per 100,000 adults, according to data from the World Bank and Citigroup, compared with just 17 in the Nordic countries which are seen as pioneers in the transition to mobile and digital banking.
Derek French, a former banker who founded the Campaign for Community Banking Services, said last August the campaign would close because he did not want to mislead the public into thinking they could do anything about bank branch closures.
"There's no hope of changing anything," Mr French told British newspapers. "We're realists."