THE shock announcement of a new round of bank closures has been condemned as another step towards the “wholesale abandonment” of high streets and communities across Scotland.

Concern is growing for older people, in particular, over the Royal Bank of Scotland’s (RBS) plans to close 18 more of its remaining branches with the loss of 105 jobs.

More than 60% of bank branches in Scotland have closed in just nine years with 636 banks and building societies closing since 2015, leaving only 404 as of December 2023.

Along with the 18 RBS closures just announced, a further 37 branches of Bank of Scotland, Halifax and Barclays have closed or are due to close this year, leaving many towns without one branch.

Anger from union leaders over the “massive blow” has been echoed by communities across Scotland as well as the charity Age Scotland who point out that 34% of over 65s mostly bank in person.

SNP MSP Clare Adamson (below), whose RBS Wishaw branch in her constituency is now earmarked for closure, said the short timescale of last week’s announcement was “extremely disappointing” and would be “deeply unsettling” for the staff who faced losing their jobs.

The National: Clare Adamson of the SNP is the convener of the committee holding the inquiry

“I, alongside my SNP colleagues, will be pressing RBS to reverse these closures and to outline how access to vital banking services will be maintained for our constituents,” she said.

“Mobile and online banking is not an option for many people. It is a privileged assumption that everyone has digital access.

“Physical local branches are indispensable for people in communities across Scotland – especially more vulnerable customers.”

Helensburgh SNP councillor Ian MacQuire said the closure of the RBS branch in the town would leave its population of more than 15,500 with only one, the Bank of Scotland. The population of the wider area is 25,500 but the Bank of Scotland in nearby Kilcreggan is also closing. RBS is the fourth bank in Helensburgh to close in recent years after the Clydesdale, TSB and Santander banks closed in the town.

MacQuire said: “Helensburgh has a large number of independent shops which rely on having a bank that they can access for their business banking, including, among other things, purchasing cash and coins for cash floats, customers’ change and banking cash takings.”

HE said that if the banks wanted to close branches, they should at least cut the charges for businesses –especially small independents, as otherwise more and more small businesses might be forced to only accept digital payments.

MacQuire added that RBS customers had been told they could use their debit cards to check their balances, withdraw and pay in cash at the Post Office.

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“What RBS doesn’t say or know is that the small Post Office in Helensburgh is always busy and I would say may not be able to cope with an influx of new custom,” he said.

“Many customers don’t use or are unable to use digital banking. What do RBS expect these customers to do once they close?”

MacQuire said that when one Helensburgh resident tried to close an RBS account online, he then received an email to advise he would need to go into a branch to close the account.

“If the banks want to close branches, they surely must make it easier for customers to close accounts online, and not expect – hope – that customers won’t close accounts under the ‘threat’ that they will have to travel to close personal accounts in the future,” he said.

Age Scotland chief executive Katherine Crawford said that with such a “frantic push” towards “digital-by-default” services, it wasn’t surprising that banks had seen a reduction in footfall at their branches.

“This latest in a long line of bank branch closures represents another step towards the wholesale abandonment of high streets and communities across Scotland,” she said.

“Digital banking is simply not an option for everyone and we know that of those who rely on branches, most tend to be older, disabled or on low incomes. Good access to branches can also help protect people from scams and fraud in a way that isn’t possible with the Post Office, for instance.

“Banks really must do more to support customers who can’t bank online or just aren’t comfortable doing so, as it risks cutting them off from managing their finances independently. Simply shunting them off to the Post Office isn’t good enough.”

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The RBS closures include three branches in Glasgow, three in Edinburgh, as well as Bathgate, East Kilbride, Helensburgh, Largs, Aberdeen, New Deer and Helensburgh.

An RBS spokesperson said: “While we are increasingly engaging our customers digitally, our branch network remains important to us.

“We are also significantly investing in refreshing our network – we are investing £10.5m in our network across Scotland, from 2023-24, as well as continuing to invest in shared solutions like the Post Office and banking hubs.”

'These changes are happening too fast'

For the small community of New Deer in Aberdeenshire, the news that their only bank branch is closing is a particularly cruel blow.

It isn’t just that the residents – many of whom are elderly – are now faced with having to travel to Fraserburgh for their nearest bank branch.

Nor is it just the fact that this is nearly half an hour by car or that the bus services were cut last year so there is no direct route.

That is bad enough but the reason the closure is particularly galling is because the community previously fought to save their bank – and won.

The residents of New Deer were told to say goodbye to the last bank in town in 2005 when the Clydesdale Bank announced a raft of branch closures that summer – 18 across the North East alone.

Yet, although a relatively small community, it punches above its weight in terms of business and commerce with independent shops, a bakery which supplies national supermarkets and a nearby recycling business which is one of the largest of its kind and operates across the UK.

When the Clydesdale Bank announced the closure, the community decided to fight back and formed a secret plan to attract a competitor bank to the village.

Assisted by the then local councillor the late Norma Thomson, and local MP Alex Salmond, the community persuaded RBS to move in – if suitable premises could be found.

The Clydesdale was persuaded to sell the building to the community for a keen price and once the transaction took place it was sold on to the RBS, to the “great annoyance” of the Clydesdale, according to Central Buchan councillor Geoff Crowson.

The branch was then modernised and rebranded, opening for business around six months after the Clydesdale branch closed.

“It was a victory for a community that refused to bow to the decisions of corporate finance taken hundreds of miles away,” said Crowson.

He added that it was “very worrying” that RBS had decided to pull out now, after nearly two decades of solid business.

“Looking at the profits of RBS, it’s not like this has to be done to make it viable,” he said. 

"They could at least work with us for solutions. 

“We should be looking at the place and what it needs – surely that should be thought about before closing the buildings instead of getting short notice. 

“These closures are announced, then we have got to scramble around and think what a solution is going to be and it is much harder to reopen buildings once they are closed.

“I fear, especially for the older generations, that these changes are happening too fast and not bringing people along with them.”

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Crowson said if services were being taken away, the decision-makers should take into account how it would affect a rural area.

“I believe a lot of this is being done by people who are just looking at statistics and bits of paper,” he said.

“Have they actually checked and seen what the bus route is from New Deer to Fraserburgh and that it is 26 minutes by car and involves changes of buses?

“There always seems to be something coming along – if it’s not the GP surgeries, it’s the buses or it’s the banks and possibly the libraries, which are the last place someone can go to get a computer to do a bit of online banking. It’s a worry.”