Walking into a bank branch and talking to a human being is becoming harder and harder each year.

Back in my day (I’ve always wanted to say that) residents of regional Australia could always count on there being at least two businesses in every town: a pub and a bank.

Communities depend on banks to deliver financial services and the closure of a bank branch was once seen as the beginning of the end for a small town.

Now, dozens of rural and regional towns have lost all their Big Four branches, leaving the local post office as the last place locally to undertake financial transactions.

But it is happening across big cities, too.

In NSW, Westpac branches in the suburbs of Lakemba, Engadine, Corrimal and Kingscliff will be shuttered in coming months.

Queensland’s branches in Ashmore, Nerang and Rockhampton will also be shut.

Branch numbers have risen and fallen over the years, reaching a nationwide peak of 7064 in June 1993

The closure of bank branches and pushing customers into digital banking has become a major cost saving strategy banks use to increase their massive profits.

According to APRA data, in 2017 there were 5816 deposit-taking bank branches. By June 2021, that number had been slashed to 4491.

In July, Westpac announced the closure of Branches in 24 regional and suburban locations with the loss of 76 jobs, including:

  • Victoria: Bentleigh; Colac; Eltham; Greythorn; Leongatha; Morwell; Portland; Reservoir; South Yarra; Werribee.

  • NSW: Glen Innes; Kiama; Lavington; Leura; Wauchope; Cronulla; Kingsgrove.

  • Queensland: Nambour; New Farm; Toombul.

  • South Australia: Fulham Gardens; Peterborough.

  • Western Australia: Kununurra; University Campus.

This year’s official figures will be released by APRA in October and will be very interesting reading.

The Big Four banks refer to branch closures as “rationalisation”

In an expert bit of marketing, the big banks prefer to soften the blow of closing down their branches by calling it, “rationalisation”.

According to their Annual Report, branch rationalisation is a key component of Westpac’s strategy to slash more than $2bn from its $10.2bn annual cost base by the 2024 ­financial year.

Following the pattern of the past few decades, the banking industry continues to rationalise branch closures by blaming the public. However, Finance Sector Union’s national secretary Julia Angrisano said the closure of bank branches and the migration of customers to digital banking was a “major cost-saving strategy banks use to increase their already huge record profits”.

The Australian Government has studied the impact of Bank branch closures on the Community before and the effects are wide-ranging

The number of branches in rural and remote areas fell from 2500 to 1900 in the four years to June 2021. The closures mean that people are spending money they do not have on transport to get to a branch where they can speak with someone at a physical location.

With more people moving to regional Australia during Covid-19, bank closures are even more pronounced. The Federal Government’s Regional Banking Taskforce was established in October last year to examine the impact of bank closures.

Small business owners have told the taskforce that people who travel to other towns for banking spend money at their destination.

“While they’re out of town doing their banking they’re going to buy a coffee or do their groceries or go to the newsagent in that town, rather than their home town,” Senator Davey said.

Online banking isn’t easy for everyone

A cashless society sounds good in theory, but we don’t even have good digital connectivity in a number of towns where bank branches are closing. They need to fix that up before everyone can “go digital”.

There is still a real need for face-to-face contact with people who can chat with them in a less rushed, more personal, relaxing environment, about issues of great importance to them. Like home loans and refinancing home loans.

Online banking can also be more difficult for people with disabilities and older people. Before banks abandon small towns, they should ensure their clients are able to confidently continue banking through other means.

Victorian Council of Social Services chief executive Emma King said 

“Bank closures compound the digital divide in our communities. It’s all very well to say ‘bank online’, except not everybody has the tools, the skills or the money to do so. Banks are still blaming customers for branch closures, claiming falsely that the public doesn’t value branches and prefer to complete their financial transactions online.”

It is the banks which prefer to force customers online because they can reduce staff numbers, save money on wages and rents and increase profits.”

How do you explain to a 90-year-old, who has always gone to the bank to get cash out and has never worked on a computer, that they need to go digital?

National Seniors Australia chief advocate Ian Henschke cautioned that banks shouldn’t neglect the needs of older Australians.

“Half a million Australians are still using bank accounts not connected to debit cards, and these are not just seniors. There’s the 10-year-old who receives $50 each birthday from grandma and grandpa for their bank book as an example.”

When branches are closed, inevitably people lose their jobs.

Finance Sector Union (FSU) national secretary Julia Angrisano has estimated that “3000 jobs have been lost in the past two years.”

The majority of frontline retail banking staff are women which means that the job losses due to branch closures disproportionately impact women who have less job security than their male counterparts – who are more likely to work in business banking or sales roles.

Profit and shareholder return always trumps service

When ANZ decided to close its Wee Waa branch earlier this year, Narrabri Shire Council mayor Ron Campbell made a number of pleas to ANZ to keep its doors open. They all fell on deaf ears.

“We tried to negotiate for the ANZ to keep their ATM, but they wouldn’t do that due to the cost of security transporting money. They were uncompromising in their decision and that’s generally the way they go. The banks are what they are, they are all about their shareholders and what profits they are making.

There was a lot of emotion through this process especially in zoom calls, but at the end of the day you realise there is no communication to be had about it with the banks.”

What is possible when the community and business work together

In 2002, The Commonwealth Bank reversed its decision to close two branches in Tasmania’s North branches at Riverside and Newstead after the city council called an extraordinary meeting to see how it could be stopped.

At the time, West Tamar Mayor Barry Easther said: “It is a common-sense decision that will be welcomed by the many customers of the branches. The decision highlights that the community and business can work together to produce positive outcomes.”

I’ll leave you with this.

Earlier this year, one of the Commonwealth Bank’s longest serving customers wrote to Chief Executive, Matt Comyn after the bank decided to close her local branch in Fairfield, north-east of Melbourne’s CBD.

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