The Secretary General of the Financial Services Union (FSU) has called on banks to stop using Covid as an excuse to speed up main street closures.
Culminating exclusively at the Belfast Telegraph, John McConnell said the reduced number of bank visits during the pandemic did not illustrate the drop in demand, but rather a reflection of the restrictions.
He said the closures not only affect “shades of communities” that do not have access to digital banking, but often also see the removal of hole-in-the-wall facilities.
“It is opportunistic to attribute closure decisions to customer behavior and attendance patterns as everyone tried to comply with restrictions during Covid,” he said.
“Polls show people would return to bank branches when the pandemic is over. “
He called on the banks to suspend their closing activities.
Earlier this year, it was revealed that more than half of all branches operated by major banks here had closed in the past decade.
As of March, 15 Bank of Ireland outlets were pending closure, meaning the total number of ‘Big Four’ branches will be 114, up from 236 in 2010.
AIB announced this summer that it would close eight of its local branches in November, leaving only seven. And around the same time, Danske Bank revealed that it would close four branches.
The bank said the decision was made after a strategic review that saw a 33% drop in the number of customers using its branch network and a 52% increase in digital online payments since late 2017.
AIB said the pandemic has accelerated the trend for customers to move away from branch office use, but will continue to provide full service.
Brian Gillan of AIB said: “We assure clients that we remain fully committed to them and to Northern Ireland, providing them with a comprehensive personal and business banking offering as well as an increased focus on lending to clients. businesses and mortgages.
“Our priority is to guarantee the bank a sustainable future, which allows us to support our clients and to play our role in strengthening the economy at large. “
But Mr McConnell said consumer behavior should not be trusted during Covid and called on banks to suspend closures.
“We are not opposed to change, but change goes beyond the situation of people,” he said.
“We are not at the digital maturity that banks think we are. We are not in the top quartile of digital maturity in Europe, we are in the fourth, but the banks treat us as if we are much further along.
He added that the closures would damage small businesses that depend on established relationships with banks and their staff.
“There is a document from the House of Commons which shows that lending to the SME sector when a branch closes a branch drops by 64%,” he said.
“People are resilient and can adapt to change, but the shift to online banking needs to be gradual rather than radical.
“Banks have a societal role; they benefit communities and in both jurisdictions – North and South – they have been bailed out by taxpayers. Their workforce also continued to work during the pandemic, maintaining a service in the community, so we are asking for a slowdown.
“They cannot accept a drop in footfall and use it as the rationale behind bank closures. This puts the onus on the customers.