Pubs and small shops could lose up to 1,500 free cash machines because of a dispute over fees.
Banks are demanding a reduction in the levy they pay when their customers use ATMs run by independent operators.
And Cardtronics, the country’s biggest provider, says this would make many machines in rural areas unprofitable.
Sources said the firm could be forced to shut 1,500 ATMs, with pubs at particular risk. These cashpoints are vital to smaller communities that have lost their lost bank branches and shops.
The Link network, which oversees the country’s 55,000 free machines, has launched a consultation on cutting fees by 20 per cent over four years.
Lloyds and Royal Bank of Scotland are at the forefront of the push for lower charges. They have shut hundreds of branches over the past few years, with RBS announcing another 259 this month.
Lloyds and Royal Bank of Scotland are at the forefront of the push for lower charges
In the year to October, they have also closed or given up control of 1,463 ATMs between them to save money. Both insist they will not abandon towns and villages when they shut down branches.
But a spokesman for Cardtronics warned that free ATMs could disappear completely if the banks get their way on fees. ‘We can confirm that there are specific plans to close some of our machines due to the prospect of lower Link interchange payments,’ he said.
‘Should Link’s proposals to slash interchange be implemented in their entirety, the free-to-use ATM model in the UK will become unsustainable.
‘Cardtronics UK will be forced to convert a much more significant number of currently viable free-to-use ATMs to pay-to-use or even remove ATM sites altogether.
‘This will be especially true for rural communities where operating costs are often higher than in densely populated urban areas, regardless of the type of location, be that pubs, local shops or street kiosks.’
RBS-owned Natwest scrapping 740 machines in the year to October
The spokesman added that new plastic bank notes and the need for software upgrades have been driving costs up at the same times as the fee cut looms.
There are fears the plan could devastate high streets. Nicky Morgan, chairman of the Commons Treasury committee, has said it is ‘difficult to see’ how the free ATM network can be maintained after a fee cut. Consumer watchdog Which? has called on the Payments Systems Regulator to take action. It said it had ‘significant concerns’ about the impact on customers of closures, with 2.7million people almost entirely dependent on cash.
Town counts cost of losing ATM
A THRIVING seaside town lost its only free cash machine when Lloyds shut its branch there this summer.
The closure of the last bank in Lynton, North Devon, left tourists struggling to find money.
Over the summer, the machine would typically dole out £400,000 a fortnight to spend in gift shops and tearooms.
Foreign visitors were unable to use Post Offices for withdrawals because non-UK cards are not accepted, and traders said the high street suffered as a result.
Susan Bingham, of the Lynton visitor centre, said: ‘Much of that money went to local shops, hotels, cafes and visitor attractions. But if people don’t have cash they think twice about spending. They head for bigger towns.
‘These businesses are the lifeblood of our economy. Foreign visitors are particularly badly hit – we get a constant stream coming in seeking cash because the nearest free machines are 20 miles away.
‘It has led to bad feeling against banks generally and Lloyds in particular. A Lloyds commercial is screened at our cinema and people have been shouting out “not here”.’
Lloyds said customers were increasingly banking online and using cards more often.
Gareth Shaw of Which? said: ‘Significantly reducing this network could have a real impact on consumers, who might be left struggling to access the cash they need – and so we must see scrutiny from the regulator.’
Link did not respond last night to a request for comment. Figures previously published by the Mail showed the number of ATMs owned by Barclays, HSBC, Lloyds and Natwest has dropped from around 19,417 since October last year to 17,461 a year later.
RBS-owned Natwest was the biggest offender, scrapping 740 machines in the period, either by closing them or handing them over to other operators when contracts with the shops hosting them came to an end. Lloyds has got rid of 723 machines, while HSBC reduced its network by 347 over the year. Barclays ditched 146 ATMs.