people walking on street between buildings during daytime
Photo by Charlie Green on Unsplash

Long before the concern over the future of high streets caused by Covid, bank and post office closures have been having an impact on the poorest people. These are important anchor institutions in communities across the UK which provide access to cash.

Covid has reduced cash use but even before the pandemic its use was reducing dramatically. Cash was used in six out of 10 transactions a decade ago but in 2019 was used in less than three in 10.

Covid has underlined the divide between the richest and securely employed who have made an easy transition to cashless transactions and online shopping, and those struggling.

When the Public Accounts Committee recently looked into the declining use of cash we were concerned that current oversight of the cash system is fragmented. The Treasury, the Financial Conduct Authority, the Payment Systems Regulator and the Bank of England all currently play a role but the responsibilities amongst these bodies are currently unclear.

These public bodies are also behind the curve in responding to these changes. There was little evidence of comprehensive action to help consumers who need cash. They appear to be unclear on what they are trying to deliver for consumers and businesses, and don’t appear to have grasped the full impact lack of access can have on communities.

Despite the fact that cash machines can be ‘protected’ in some areas in the two years to January 2020 the number of ATMs fell by 12%. And increasing numbers of ATMs were converted to pay-to-use.

In the last week I’ve had notification of the closure of two high street banks in my constituency (balanced by the welcome refurbishment of the local branch of mutual Nationwide which continues to invest in my community). The public authorities told the committee that people could rely on post offices, but post offices will not always be open at times when people want to access cash.

What is clear is that without action there is a real risk that people could be left behind.

The Government has an avowed policy of protecting Access to Cash. In October 2020, it published a call for evidence setting out its aims and seeking views on key considerations for the future of the UK’s cash system.

One of the Government’s proposals is to put the Financial Conduct Authority in overall charge of consumer interest in relation to cash which could help resolve the confusion over who is in charge.

More worryingly – and underlying the committee’s concern about a lack of understanding of who uses cash and why – it raised the prospect of allowing cash withdrawals without purchase in supermarkets. On its own this may not be a problem but if it contributes to the further closure of anchor banks and post offices in our communities we all lose out.

It is possible that we will hear more from the Government in the Queen’s Speech in May. But there is an important role for us as Co-operators to be vigilant, fight for Access to Cash and argue for local community facilities.