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

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How the shadow cabinet forced Jeremy Corbyn not to change Labour policy on Syria air strikes

Frontbenchers made it clear that they "would not leave the room" until the leader backed down. 

Jeremy Corbyn had been forced to back down once before the start of today's shadow cabinet meeting on Syria, offering Labour MPs a free vote on air strikes against Isis. By the end of the two-hour gathering, he had backed down twice.

At the start of the meeting, Corbyn's office briefed the Guardian that while he would hold a free vote, party policy would be changed to oppose military action, an attempt to claim partial victory. But shadow cabinet members, led by Andy Burnham, argued that this was "unacceptable" and an attempt to divide MPs from members. Burnham, who is not persuaded by the case for air strikes, warned that colleagues who voted against the party's proposed position would become targets for abuse, undermining the principle of a free vote. Jon Ashworth, the shadow minister without portfolio and NEC member, said that Labour's policy remained the motion passed by this year's conference, which was open to competing interpretations (though most believe the tests it set for military action have been met). Party policy could not be changed without going through a similarly formal process, he argued. 

When Corbyn's team suggested that the issue be resolved after the meeting, members made it clear that they "would not leave the room" until the Labour leader had backed down. By the end, only Corbyn allies Diane Abbot and Jon Trickett argued that party policy should be changed to oppose military action. John McDonnell, who has long argued for a free vote, took a more "conciliatory" approach, I'm told. It was when Hilary Benn said that he would be prepared to speak from the backbenches in the Syria debate, in order to avoid opposing party policy, that Corbyn realised he would have to give way. The Labour leader and the shadow foreign secretary will now advocate opposing positions from the frontbench when MPs meet, with Corbyn opening and Benn closing. 

The meeting had begun with members, including some who reject military action, complaining about the "discorteous" and "deplorable" manner in which the issue had been handled. As I reported last week, there was outrage when Corbyn wrote to MPs opposing air strikes without first informing the shadow cabinet. There was anger today when, at 2:07pm, seven minutes after the meeting began, some members received an update from the Guardian revealing that a free vote would be held but that party policy would be changed to oppose military action. This "farcical moment", in the words of one present (Corbyn is said to have been unaware of the briefing), only hardened shadow cabinet members' resolve to force their leader to back down - and he did. 

In a statement released following the meeting, a Corbyn spokesperson confirmed that a free vote would be held but made no reference to party policy: 

"Today's Shadow Cabinet agreed to back Jeremy Corbyn's recommendation of a free vote on the Government's proposal to authorise UK bombing in Syria.   

"The Shadow Cabinet decided to support the call for David Cameron to step back from the rush to war and hold a full two day debate in the House of Commons on such a crucial national decision.  

"Shadow Cabinet members agreed to call David Cameron to account on the unanswered questions raised by his case for bombing: including how it would accelerate a negotiated settlement of the Syrian civil war; what ground troops would take territory evacuated by ISIS; military co-ordination and strategy; the refugee crisis and the imperative to cut-off of supplies to ISIS."

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.