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Cut off from cash: Wave of cash machine cuts leaves communities facing long treks to make free withdrawals

Widespread cuts to the UK’s cash machine network are leaving many communities facing long journeys to make withdrawals for free and some people struggling to access cash at all, new research from Which? reveals.

The consumer champion’s analysis of data from Link – the UK’s biggest cashpoint network – shows how the problem of accessing free withdrawals appears to be getting worse.

When their local free cashpoint is lost, people in rural communities are now having to travel three times further on average than those in urban areas to get to the next nearest free cash machine, Which? found.

Residents in almost one in eight rural communities (12%) – 153 postcode areas in total – that lost their last free machine must travel at least 1km to their nearest ATM that does not charge a fee for withdrawals.

In the most extreme examples people are facing journeys of more than half an hour on public transport to reach a free cashpoint.

Alarmingly, some of these cash machines have closed despite being given ‘protected’ status by Link – in recognition of their critical importance to local people and businesses. For example, residents in Harlech, Wales lost their protected machine on the high street and are now 10km away from the next free option. The area is also not served by a Post Office.

Overall, 194 ‘protected machines’ closed between January 2018 and July 2019, according to figures from Link.

Many of these rural areas also suffer with patchy broadband and mobile services – making it difficult for some people and businesses to switch to online banking and digital payments as a reliable alternative when convenient access to cash is cut.

Among the communities in Which?’s analysis:

  • Gargunnock (Scotland) lost its high street cashpoint, meaning the nearest free-to-use option is over nine km away. The area is served by a mobile Post Office, although opening times are limited to nine hours a week.
  • Harlech (Wales) residents are now 10km from their nearest free-to-use machine, facing a 15-minute drive, or a 25-minute train ride. Harlech does not have a Post Office. According to Ofcom, the area also has poor 4G signal. (Harlech’s closed machine was also on Link’s ‘Protected’ list).
  • Residents of Naseby (Northamptonshire) lost their last ATM on the high street and now have to drive seven minutes by car, or endure a 20-minute journey by public transport to access a free-to-use machine that is six km away. There is no Post Office closer than the next free cashpoint.
  • Cerrigydrudion (Wales) residents saw their last free-to-use machine convert to charging fees and now have to travel 13.5km, which is a 13-minute car journey or 40 minutes by bus to access their next nearest free option. The area has a nearby Post Office, or fee-charging options. (The closed machine was also on Link’s ‘protected’ list).
  • A ferry ride or 40-minute car journey is now required for the people of Tighnabruaich in Scotland to access the nearest free-to-use machine, which is 37km miles away. The area has a Post Office two km away, which is open during working hours or a fee-charging (£1.99) machine.

For some communities, Post Office branches can provide a valuable back-up or alternative to an ATM, as they offer some everyday banking services such as cash withdrawals and cash deposits. However, they are not a direct substitute for a cashpoint.

Which? first raised the alarm about the risk of a wave of cashpoint closures in December 2017 after Link announced changes to the way its network was funded. These latest findings highlight the need for urgent action to prevent the millions of people who need cash from being financially excluded, as free cashpoints are lost at a rate of 600 a month.

The consumer champion previously revealed that deprived communities are seeing a greater shift to fee-charging machines within their cashpoint network. Further Which? research also found that lower income households and older generations will be hardest hit by declining access to cash due to their reliance on this payment method.

Last week, Link announced an initiative that aims to provide cashpoints to under-resourced areas, and UK Finance said it would provide support for communities – such as helping people with the transition to digital payment methods. Which? is encouraging communities across the UK to use these schemes and will be monitoring their effectiveness.

However, to stop cash machines closing in the short term, or converting to charge fees in areas where they are most needed, Which? is calling on the Payment Systems Regulator to take control of cashpoint interchange fees, changes to which were a catalyst for the widespread closures seen in recent months.

Ultimately, Which? believes government intervention is required to introduce legislation that guarantees consumers can continue to access and pay with cash for as long as it is needed.

Jenny Ross, Which? Money Editor, said:

“A lack of proper oversight has seen thousands of cash machines and bank branches around the country closing – leaving whole communities cut off from the cash local people and businesses desperately need.

To date, voluntary measures from industry to ensure people can still access cash have been woefully insufficient. The government must intervene by introducing legislation that guarantees consumers can continue to access and pay with cash for as long as it is needed.”

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