Thursday, January 30, 2014
While Barclays swiftly moved to dampen speculation, widespread reports that it might be preparing to shut a quarter of its 1,600 High Street branches caused immediate disquiet among groups representing pensioners.
• Banking firm Barclays announce branch closures and hundreds of job cuts
Despite the bank’s insistence that it has “no plans” to announce significant reductions to its UK branch network – including 30 in Norfolk – yesterday’s reports of a drastic cull being planned were greeted by many as a depressing, and almost inevitable, sign of the times.
To a generation used to town and city centres that were more about butchers, bakers, greengrocers and banks than coffee shops and bistros, the move would be seen as a further inexorable shift towards a world where characterless out-of-town shopping centres and the internet are replacing the cheery face in the high street.
East Anglia has long been a Barclays heartland, nurturing the Gurney family of banks since the mid 18th century.
The Gurneys proved pivotal in the establishment of Barclays as we know it today. The banks founded by the Gurneys, alongside Barclays, Buxtons, Birkbecks and others provided the foundations for today’s bank.
The Gurney family were a prominent Norfolk dynasty of bankers, wool merchants and brewers. Their flagship business was the Bank in Norwich, based at Bank Plain.
This bank was founded in 1775 by John and Henry Gurney. The Norwich Bank was so successful that banks were established at Yarmouth, Halesworth, King’s Lynn and Wisbech in 1781 and 1782.
However, while the reported plans have been roundly condemned by some as a blunt response to the sector’s financial turmoil – one that pays little heed to customers’ needs – others see it as the inevitable direction of travel in a world dominated by the internet.
Commentators believe Barclays is working on a bold strategy that would see the replacement of some of its lost branches with smaller sites in Asda supermarkets.
The reports have already caused ripples of alarm in Norfolk’s rural communities, where many people rely on local banking and the Unite union attacked any “reckless rush” to close branches, warning it would be unpopular with customers.
It is a view that is supported by Phil Wells, CEO of Age UK Norwich, who said it would not be a welcome move.
He said: “While you can’t categorise all old people as the same, and some are quite happy to use internet banking, there are many who can’t afford a computer. Some live in areas with poor internet access, others may never have been trained to use computers and there are people with disabilities, such as arthritis, that make using computer keyboards difficult.”
Mr Wells described the issue as “a much bigger problem than Barclays”.
He said: “It would just join a long list of services no longer delivered face to face and the government is leading the way on that.
“It is a pattern within society where there is less personal contact and a trend towards people becoming more isolated from each other.”
He said banks changing their way of operating to save money might be the right thing to do, but some of the saving had to be re-invested in ways that would allow people without internet access to still use their services; fostering new partnerships with local outlets such as post offices was one way forward.
Stefan Gurney, (pictured), business improvement district executive director for Norwich, is confident that the vibrancy of the high street would be unaffected by banks closing branches.
He said: “There will always be change and progression on the High Street and the landscape 10 years ago was very different to today’s, with its focus on the social experience rather than purely retail.”
He is optimistic there will always be sufficient bank branches remaining to provide customers with face-to-face contact.
And he added: “The internet is here and continuing to develop. The changes it brings will create opportunities for different propositions on the high street that don’t even exist yet.”
A Barclays spokesman said: “We have consistently been clear that, over time, there will be fewer traditional branches as we move to provide banking services to customers where and when they find it most convenient.
“However, the branch network will remain an important part of our banking service.
“While it is inevitable that there will be speculation about how these changes will impact on the branch network, this will be driven by the needs of our customers and, therefore, there is not a target for a number of branches to be closed, nor a timeframe for such action.”