The big banks had all deserted the Essex market town of Rochford, with Barclays the last to shut in 2017.
It was not thought cost-effective to keep full-time branches open in the town, which dates from medieval times and now has a population of 8,400.
From then on, cash could only be withdrawn from two sites — one ATM that charged 99p — and from a Post Office plagued by long queues.
Rochford helpers (l-r): Toni Jean-Baptiste of Natwest, David Szczepaniak of Lloyds, Frederic Easlea of Santander, Lisa Burton of Barclays and Alison Hoskin of HSBC
And to speak to someone from their bank, most families faced an eight-mile round trip to the nearest branches in Southend-on-Sea.
But now there could be a solution. Rather than their bank having a 24/7 presence on the High Street, residents have been given their local branches back for one day a week.
On Mondays, NatWest takes over the shared High Street branch, on Tuesdays it’s Lloyds, Wednesdays: Santander, Thursdays: Barclays, with HSBC on Fridays. For Rochford is one of two locations in the UK to test out a new way of banking.
And these new bank hubs in Rochford and Cambuslang, a town on the outskirts of Glasgow could be the future in small towns.
The project is designed to help bank-barren communities at a time when more than 500 branches have been shut or are earmarked for closure this year.
Plummeting numbers of free-to-use cash machines are also contributing to a cash crisis — with 3,900 shut since the pandemic started, according to ATM network Link.
The shared bank buildings in Rochford and Cambuslang also have a Post Office counter, where visitors can pay in cheques and change, withdraw cash and settle bills five days a week.
But the new breed of bank branch is not currently a perfect replacement for the real thing.
Santander staff can only help customers use ATMs, make transactions on their phones and talk to its telephone banking service.
But the bank will soon expand its hub repertoire to include recovering lost passwords and usernames, reporting lost bank cards and setting up standing orders.
Plummeting numbers of free-to-use cash machines are contributing to a cash crisis
NatWest customers have access to almost every service they would at a local branch including notifying the bank of a bereavement and undertaking a mortgage agreement in principal. But they cannot instruct a payment worth more than £20,000.
But Natalie Ceeney, who launched the Community Access to Cash Pilots scheme, says more services are likely to be added as the banks find out what the customers want through the pilot.
‘We are looking to find out what other services people want so banks will understand how best to serve local people,’ she says.
On a midweek morning half-a-dozen customers are queuing outside the building, which was previously a carpet shop.
Inside, customers can go straight to branch manager Richard Fleetwood for Post Office services.
They can also use machines to deposit cheques and cash or speak to their own community banker in a private room.
Barclays customer Heather Hartnett, 71, arrives holding a cheque she has had since November. The retired bank worker was relieved that she would no longer have to drive to Southend, because the journey aggravates her arthritis.
She says: ‘I could have gone to the Post Office, but I feel safer doing it in a branch — it feels more private.’ Later, Natalie Robinson-Day, 50, leaves the hub after depositing cash in her NatWest account. The mother-of-three says: ‘I found out about this when I saw it on Facebook — they were so helpful.’
The banks in the hub represent the largest market share in the area. And it has already attracted several older customers.
Lloyds community banker David Szczepaniak, 21, says: ‘One gentleman in his 70s came in after he locked himself out of his online account because he’d forgotten his password. I helped him set up a new one and get back in.’
Residents also hope it will attract more visitors to the town’s shops and weekly market. Butcher Jason Macaree, of J.Mac Meats, hopes the hub will make it easier to deposit takings.
Jason, 49, says: ‘I used to drive to Southend, now I will be able to go to the hub more frequently and I won’t have to carry as much money around.’
If the six-month pilot is successful, Ms Ceeney hopes to roll out the hubs across the country.
But a third hub, which was set to open in Ampthill, Bedfordshire, had to be scrapped because organisers could not find a suitable venue.
Campaigner Derek French, a former bank executive, says the hubs could be the ‘only solution’ to help communities as branches close everywhere.
He adds: ‘People will need to show their support by going to these hubs in the next six months. I am concerned that people are still behaving differently during the pandemic and that some may stay away from them as a result.’
Community Access to Cash Pilot initiatives are planned to run in eight areas across the UK.
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