This is an extract from Martin Vander Weyer's 'Any other business' column in this week's Spectator
The season of high-street banks’ annual general meetings is with us and I urge you to turn up and make trouble. When I say ‘you’, I don’t mean the likes of New York ‘activist’ Edward Bramson — who holds 5 per cent of Barclays and may or may not agitate for a boardroom seat at next Tuesday’s gathering. I mean you, dear reader, the modest shareholder-customer who suffers rotten service, too-frequent computer glitches and negative returns on savings while directors on the platform congratulate themselves on the spurious performance measures that underpin their bonuses. This is your annual chance to make them squirm.
One topic you might like to tackle them on is the continuing tide of branch closures, on which many of you expressed strong views to me early last year. Your combined 10,000-word overview was forwarded to the Banking Standards Board and UK Finance, the umbrella trade association for the sector, to no avail. Since then the number of ‘big four’ branches has reduced by 1,000, with more closures to come from Lloyds (AGM: 24 May) and RBS (date unconfirmed), plus an additional threat of the potential loss of 10,000 cash machines because of a cut in fees paid by banks to ATM operators.
The emphasis of this debate has shifted from the inconveniences for personal customers (who are gradually migrating online, faute de mieux) to the plight of small businesses, left with nowhere in town to pay in or deal with foreign transactions or talk about credit. This absence of banking facilities, alongside rising business rates and competition from discounters, charity shops and the internet, is deepening the high-street desolation that is detrimental to everyone’s quality of life. Arguably — because it damages business performance and increases uncertainty — it’s also a factor in the UK’s chronic low-productivity problem.
For all their talk of ‘consulting communities’, banks have failed to acknowledge the ‘social licence’ that attaches to the free money we lend them on current and deposit accounts. But there’s still time, for example, to embrace the proposal in our readers’ report that the last bank branch in any vicinity should become a multi-bank ‘hub’ offering services for all — an idea the SNP is now promoting to avert much of Scotland becoming a bankless desert. Get down to the AGM, ladies and gentlemen, and get ready to shout at the chairman.