Banks and the high street

As our banking behaviour heads online, major job losses will follow

So when was the last time you visited a bank branch? Now, be honest. The chances are that you are popping into your bank branch a lot less frequently than, say, three years ago, let alone 10 years ago.

Need to check your balance? Easy: go online. Pay a bill: ditto. Transfer cash between accounts, set up a direct debit - the answer is the same.

For many customers, the majority of everyday banking transactions can be conducted online or with a call centre or increasingly via smartphones and tablet devices such as the iPad.

This change in consumer behaviour is not yet apparent on the majority of UK High Streets but give it time.

Bank branch closures have been galloping along at a fair rate of knots in the past decade but until now have largely focused on small towns and rural communities.

Almost one-in-five UK bank branches have closed since 2000 with Barclays’ branch network for example down from 2,129 to 1,700; HSBC is down from 1,670 to 1,300 during the same period.

In the next decade, the High Streets of our larger towns will witness a major change in the number of bank branches and in branch design.

A relatively small number of flagship bank branches, vaguely along the lines of Apple Stores, will spring up in the larger cities.

But for the vast majority of us, the typical bank branch will be much smaller in scale, largely self-service with all cash held in ATMs as banks cotton on to a greater use of self-service terminals.

From a design standpoint, the branch will become more like a retail store.

Have you been in a newish branch of HSBC or Barclays recently-you get the picture?

Major job losses to come

Since the banking crisis really gathered pace post Lehman in 2008, job losses have tended to focus in the back office; investment banking roles have also been scaled back.

Staff performing IT and other support roles have been particularly badly hit in the past three years or so at the high street lenders.

Last year alone, HSBC announced plans to axe 30,000 positions around the world.

Lloyds said that it would eliminate 16,800 positions, about 1 in 6 of its total workforce.

Elsewhere, Barclays is dispensing with 3,000 roles and counting and it is the same story at major banks across Europe.

Last year, banking job cuts across Europe topped 70,000.

But job losses at the High street branch level have barely started.

Take RBS. It is one of the most enthusiastic cost cutters in the High Street – all of course part of its masterplan to “rebuild the bank”.

Last year, it managed to lose a mere 500 branch staff, reducing retail banking total employment from 28,200 to 27,700.

There is far worse to come.

If the bank branch is to prosper, the customer experience will have to change.

Virgin Money’s lounge vision, providing a comfortable space for customers to have a coffee, relax, check emails or charge mobile phones, demonstrates how a banking brand can attempt to restore trust, deliver something different and attract customers.

Another high street strategy entirely is being pursued Lloyds TSB, where a new branch design is designed to enhance the role of the bank within the local community.

In a number of its markets – but not yet in the UK - Santander has rolled out Santander Select outlets, upmarket branches providing a level of comfort not normally associated with a humble bank branch.

Nationwide Building Society is also investing with plans to refurbish its entire retail network of 700 outlets over the next two years.

That is about it for good news.

 

Douglas Blakey is the editor of Retail Banker International

GETTY
Show Hide image

North Yorkshire has approved the UK’s first fracking tests in five years. What does this mean?

Is fracking the answer to the UK's energy future? Or a serious risk to the environment?

Shale gas operation has been approved in North Yorkshire, the first since a ban introduced after two minor earthquakes in 2011 were shown to be caused by fracking in the area. On Tuesday night, after two days of heated debate, North Yorkshire councillors finally granted an application to frack in the North York Moors National Park.

The vote by the Tory-dominated council was passed by seven votes to four, and sets an important precedent for the scores of other applications still awaiting decision across the country. It also gives a much-needed boost to David Cameron’s 2014 promise to “go all out for shale”. But with regional authorities pitted against local communities, and national government in dispute with global NGOs, what is the wider verdict on the industry?

What is fracking?

Fracking, or “hydraulic fracturing”, is the extraction of shale gas from deep underground. A mixture of water, sand and chemicals is pumped into the earth at such high pressure that it literally fractures the rocks and releases the gas trapped inside.

Opponents claim that the side effects include earthquakes, polluted ground water, and noise and traffic pollution. The image the industry would least like you to associate with the process is this clip of a man setting fire to a running tap, from the 2010 US documentary Gasland

Advocates dispute the above criticisms, and instead argue that shale gas extraction will create jobs, help the UK transition to a carbon-neutral world, reduce reliance on imports and boost tax revenues.

So do these claims stands up? Let’s take each in turn...

Will it create jobs? Yes, but mostly in the short-term.

Industry insiders imply that job creation in the UK could rival that seen in the US, while the medium-sized production company Cuadrilla claims that shale gas production would create 1,700 jobs in Lancashire alone.

But claims about employment may be exaggerated. A US study overseen by Penn State University showed only one in seven of the jobs the industry forecast actually materialised. In the UK, a Friends of the Earth report contends that the majority of jobs to be created by fracking in Lancashire would only be short-term – with under 200 surviving the initial burst.

Environmentalists, in contrast, point to evidence that green energy creates more jobs than similar-sized fossil fuel investments.  And it’s not just climate campaigners who don’t buy the employment promise. Trade union members also have their doubts. Ian Gallagher, Secretary of Blackburn and District Trade Unions Council, told Friends of the Earth that: “Investment in the areas identified by the Million Climate Jobs Campaign [...] is a far more certain way of addressing both climate change and economic growth than drilling for shale gas.”

Will it deliver cleaner energy? Not as completely as renewables would.

America’s “shale revolution” has been credited with reversing the country’s reliance on dirty coal and helping them lead the world in carbon-emissions reduction. Thanks to the relatively low carbon dioxide content of natural gas (emitting half the amount of coal to generate the same amount of electricity), fracking helped the US reduce its annual emissions of carbon dioxide by 556 million metric tons between 2007 and 2014. Banning it, advocates argue, would “immediately increase the use of coal”.

Yet a new report from the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (previously known for its opposition to wind farm applications), has laid out a number of ways that the UK government can meet its target of 80 per cent emissions reduction by 2050 without necessarily introducing fracking and without harming the natural world. Renewable, home-produced, energy, they argue, could in theory cover the UK’s energy needs three times over. They’ve even included some handy maps:


Map of UK land available for renewable technologies. Source: RSPB’s 2050 Energy Vision.

Will it deliver secure energy? Yes, up to a point.

For energy to be “sustainable” it also has to be secure; it has to be available on demand and not threatened by international upheaval. Gas-fired “peaking” plants can be used to even-out input into the electricity grid when the sun doesn’t shine or the wind is not so blowy. The government thus claims that fracking is an essential part of the UK’s future “energy mix”, which, if produced domestically, will also free us from reliance on imports tarnished by volatile Russian politics.

But, time is running out. Recent analysis by Carbon Brief suggests that we are only have five years left of current CO2 emission levels before we blow the carbon budget and risk breaching the climate’s crucial 1.5°C tipping point. Whichever energy choices we make now need to starting brining down the carbon over-spend immediately.

Will it help stablise the wider economy? Yes, but not forever.

With so many “Yes, buts...” in the above list, you might wonder why the government is still pressing so hard for fracking’s expansion? Part of the answer may lie in their vested interest in supporting the wider industry.

Tax revenues from UK oil and gas generate a large portion of the government’s income. In 2013-14, the revenue from license fees, petroleum revenue tax, corporation tax and the supplementary charge accounted for nearly £5bn of UK exchequer receipts. The Treasury cannot afford to lose these, as evidenced in the last budget when George Osborne further subsidied North Sea oil operations through increased tax breaks.

The more that the Conservaitves support the industry, the more they can tax it. In 2012 DECC said it wanted to “guarantee... every last economic drop of oil and gas is produced for the benefit of the UK”. This is a sentiment that was repeated yesterday by energy minister Andrea Leadsom, when she welcomed the North Yorkshire decision as a “fantastic opportunity” for fracking.

Dependence on finite domestic fuel reserves, however, is not a long-term economic solution. Not least because of the question of their replacement once they eventually run out: “Pensions already have enough stranded assets as they are,” says Danielle Pafford from 350.org.

Is it worth it? Most European countries have decided it’s not.

There is currently no commercial shale-gas drilling in Europe. Sustained protests against the industry in Romania, combined with poor exploration results, have already caused energy giant Chevron to pull out of the country. Total has also abandonned explorations in Denmark, Poland is being referred to the European Court of Justice for failing to adequately assess fracking’s impact, and, in Germany, brewers have launched special bottle-caps with the slogan “Nein! Zu Fracking” to warn against the threat to their water supply.

Back in the UK, the government's latest survey of public attitudes to fracking found that 44 per cent neither supported nor opposed the practice, but also that opinion is gradually shifting out of favour. If the government doesn't come up with arguments that hold water soon, it seems likely that the UK's fracking future could still be blasted apart.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.