The National Times - Scottish town welcomes banking lifeline

Scottish town welcomes banking lifeline

Scottish town welcomes banking lifeline
Scottish town welcomes banking lifeline

Donna Corrigan pops into her local supermarket to pay OneBanks a visit, laden with a heavy box of coins to deposit into her bank account.

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After the closure of its last bank branch in 2018, the Scottish town of Denny has welcomed a hi-tech startup offering everyday banking services inside the town's Co-op grocery store.

Looking onto shelves filled with Heinz baked beans and Kinder Surprise chocolate eggs, OneBanks' kiosk -- comprising staffed counter services, a cash machine and two computer tablets -- opened in late 2020.

The kiosk offers Denny's 8,000 inhabitants an alternative to traditional bank branches after the rise of online banking allowed lenders battered by the global financial crisis more than a decade ago to save costs by permanently closing outlets.

This is continuing to occur in big numbers.

Among Britain's biggest banks, HSBC and Lloyds last month said they would close a further 129 branches combined as customers increasingly switched to online banking during the pandemic.

OneBanks, which has raised around five million pounds ($6.6 million, six million euros) from various investors, acts as a go-between for more than 30 banks and their customers.

- 'Like a regular bank' -

The OneBanks kiosk "can do everything -- it's like a regular bank for me", Corrigan, 40, told AFP.

"I'm not a business, I'm just a normal customer who just wants to withdraw cash. So it's useful for me."

Behind the counter, a staff member drops spare change into a money-counting machine while making small talk.

OneBanks gives customers physical access to banking services for free. Banks subscribe to the startup's services to connect with their clients.

Customers can deposit or withdraw cash and pay bills, while advisors provide help to the less tech-savvy.

The disappearance of Denny's banks left inhabitants with a 20-minute drive to the nearest branches in Cumbernauld, Falkirk or Stirling near to Glasgow.

British consumer group Which? predicts about 5,000 UK bank branches, around half the total, will have disappeared between 2015 and 2022, with Scotland worst affected.

- Dependent on cash -

Swathes of Britain's population remain dependent on cash, despite the surging popularity of both internet use and contactless payments during the coronavirus pandemic.

The Royal Society of Arts charity estimates almost 20 percent of Britons -- particularly the elderly and those in rural areas -- would find it hard to cope without cash.

Yet in Denny's neighbouring town of Bridge of Allan, there is not a branch in sight.

The last bank "closed about four years ago", said hardware store manager Jennifer Wilson.

"A lot of our customers prefer to pay in cash to keep an eye on what they're spending," she added.

Wilson takes 40 percent of payments in cash.

- 'Cold and sterile' -

Retired university professor Richard Kilborn laments the lack of human contact now that Bridge of Allan's three branches have vanished.

"As a member of the older generation, you get used to certain changes, but I also actually relished the person-to-person contact within the bank," he told AFP.

"Now things have become cold and sterile."

OneBanks hopes to change that with plans to roll out about 15 additional UK banking kiosks by the end of the year, on top of the three that it has in Scotland.

The group also has international ambitions.

"The problem that banks have -- in terms of needing to close branches but also still needing to have some sort of physical presence -- is a global problem," OneBanks founder and chief executive Duncan Cockburn told AFP.

"And therefore I really do see OneBanks as a global solution."

The broader UK finance sector is working towards addressing the problem.

Top lenders like Barclays, HSBC, Lloyds and NatWest have agreed to fund alternative solutions.

The industry tested various options including OneBanks kiosks. It also wants to improve post office facilities and has trialled banking hub services in conjunction with lenders.