A stylish new ‘banking hub’ in Essex was supposed to offer a glimpse into the future.
The concept was simple — five banks would share one High Street store where locals could pay their bills and deposit cheques free of charge.
It was seen as a lifeline for the market town of Rochford, which was left without any bank branch when Barclays closed its doors in 2017.
Checking out the service: Money Mail’s Helena Kelly visits the shared banking hub in Rochford, Essex
A similar hub was set up in Cambuslang, near Glasgow, with dozens more planned for towns up and down the country.
Yet the roll-out has been mired by delays — prompting even the City watchdog to admit it is frustrated.
The slow progress risks undermining an initiative that was meant to play a crucial role in protecting the nation’s access to cash.
As of this month, any community that has lost all its bank branches can apply for a hub of its own via cash machine network group Link.
The scheme is part of banking trade body UK Finance’s Community Access To Cash project, with day-to-day running of the sites managed by the Post Office.
But experts fear it may struggle to handle an influx of applications. It has been around 14 months since the hub in Rochford launched.
In December, Link said a further five were in development. Yet, eight months on, we are still waiting.
The painfully slow roll-out is at odds with the lightning speed at which banks are closing their doors. So far this year, 314 branches have shut down, according to Link. This is on top of 736 closures in 2021.
And, as I step into the Rochford Bank Hub, it is clear the project is facing teething issues.
It is a Friday morning and today is HSBC’s official ‘day’. I am visiting with representatives from the Post Office and the Financial Conduct Authority to discuss the merits of community banking.
Outside, the store looks slick and professional. It is painted black but is emblazoned with the familiar red Post Office logo. Inside, it is clean and welcoming — if slightly dark.
There is a counter in the left-hand corner and an ATM opposite. At the back of the room is a door leading to a second office where two HSBC employees sit.
‘I think it needs to be better advertised,’ one worker says.
‘And we need better technology. We don’t even have a landline at the moment.’
Some basic services — such as cash deposits — are available to all customers throughout the week. Each of the five major banks send representatives to help with more complicated inquiries on its appointed day.
On Monday it’s NatWest, on Tuesday Lloyds, Wednesday is Santander, Barclays has Thursday and HSBC Friday. Each firm pays towards the hub’s running costs.
Closures: So far this year, 314 branches have shut down, according to figures by cash machine network group Link. This is on top of the 736 closures in 2021
Barclays’ day is by far the most popular — largely because it had such a big presence in the town previously.
HSBC employees are frustrated they do not draw the same crowd, claiming locals are unaware of what services the hub can offer.
One elderly HSBC customer, for example, travels for more than an hour to her nearest bank branch in Rayleigh — even though she lives closer to the Bank Hub.
As we speak, a man pops his head around the door. He asks the adviser if he can print out a bank statement to which he receives a firm ‘No.’
‘We don’t have any printers here,’ says Ross Borkett, head of banking at the Post Office. ‘He’d have to go to a branch for that.’
Mr Borkett defends the scheme. He says: ‘This is designed to get the conversation started. We know there are teething issues but if we prove a project like this works then we can convince the banks to invest more into it.’
Indeed, the Bank Hub does have some very enthusiastic fans.
Local resident Barbara Cranfield, 67, says: ‘My generation find it really helpful. I do use online banking but I like being able to go in and speak to somebody.’
Customers using the service in Essex and Scotland made more than £11.6 million of cash withdrawals and deposits in the first year it launched.
Kelly Fossett, 50, who works behind the till at the Rochford branch, says: ‘The community loves it. One lady comes in every day just for a chat.’
However, when I ask Kelly, who previously worked at a Barclays branch nearby, if the hub works as well as a traditional bank, there is an uncomfortable silence.
Eventually she asks: ‘Do I have to answer that?’
In town, it is clearly making a difference. One coffee shop owner in Rochford says he was going to stop accepting cash but changed his mind after the hub was launched.
Jason Macaree, a butcher, adds: ‘A project like this will save a lot of High Streets.’
Campaigner Derek French, who has been calling for community banking services for decades, says: ‘The Bank Hub roll-out is far too slow. If the banks can get away with closing branches without having to pay their individual shares of hub costs, they will be “laughing all the way to the bank”.’
My visit to the site here in Rochford was amid a turbulent week for the banking sector. Halifax had found itself at the centre of a culture storm after revealing its employees would be kitted out with ‘pronoun’ badges specifying which gender they prefer. When customers complained, the bank said they were welcome to close their accounts.
It’s easy to see why people feel frustrated. On the one hand, banks are falling over themselves to prove how ‘right-on’ they are about social issues.
At the same time, they are shutting down branches in their droves, ignoring the catastrophic effect this has on local communities.
I mention this disconnect to Sheldon Mills, a director at the FCA, who is accompanying me on my visit to the Bank Hub.
He says: ‘We can see that this type of community banking service is needed. Things are moving in the right direction but we know we need to go faster.’