S & B Herald Article – October

I have often written about the fact that when it comes to the Highlands, and our communities there is no “one size fits all”.

This was sharply apparent when the Zielsdorf family were deported from Laggan to Canada by the UK Government’s Home Office, despite a long campaign by their neighbours and many others to keep them in the village where they ran the only shop. 

The approach is also demonstrated by those retailers and courier companies who list our mainland addresses as being “Islands” and slap heavy delivery surcharges to goods. Incidentally, although my bill to address this in the last Parliament was lost due to time, I will be working with colleagues to seek to address this in the new parliament.

Whilst not unexpected, though vigorously fought, it was particularly shocking to see the Bank of Scotland follow through their notice to close their branch in Kingussie and to see it roughly boarded up with plywood panels last week.

For many of us, it has encapsulated the way the bank has gone about the business of what it calls changes to the “Branch Estate”

Remember when the public purse came to the rescue of the banks in 2008? All of us had to pay to make sure that despite their incredible mismanagement they were able to survive. There was an understanding, for the briefest of times, about the responsibility and gratitude that was owed.

For a while, there were pledges about “no branches closing” – with both The Royal Bank and the Bank of Scotland saying they were “with you every day” and “with you all the way” respectively. A friend in need, as they say. These warm words have disappeared now as the relentless run down of local branches has picked up pace.

They would state that the decision to close branches is due to the changing ways that we access services. They point to the figures showing that more people are doing their banking online, on smartphones and that new entrants to the banking market, the “FinTechs” are stealing their trade through being more innovative significantly lower costs. The impact? Small rural branches will be the collateral damage in the business front, or rather bottom, line. They also say that local branch business is declining – whilst factual, it is hardly surprising given their own actions.

First, they cut hours and days of opening, increasing inconvenience and thus ensuring demand weakens – allowing them to accelerate the decline making branches “unviable”. Exercises carried out without any meaningful discussion with the people and businesses affected and in isolation of the wider impact on the future of the area that they served.

Studies show that it costs six times more for a bank to attract a new customer as it does to retain a loyal one because people have often been reluctant to switch banks. However the trend of ‘loyal customers’ is changing and it should serve as a warning to the banks. Folk are spreading their banking services – rightly so, if there is no loyalty to them, why should they retain loyalty to a particular bank?

Last week, I spoke with the bank again – naturally, I expressed what I believe is the collective concern of our communities that there is simply a lack of appreciation of the challenges and the opportunities for institutions, such as theirs, to work meaningfully with local people to address future needs.

Specifically for Kingussie, they have agreed with me to review the details around the need for 24 hour access to a cash machine and to address the disgrace of the boarding up of the branch. I have invited their senior management to visit, with me, local people and businesses to listen to their needs for the future and I would urge them to accept my invitation.