The UK’s Community Access to Cash pilot schemes have got under way in earnest this month, but what are they all about, and who is behind them?
A recent article by Which?—a UK organisation that promotes informed consumer choice—explores the problems experienced in underbanked areas of the country, highlighting Cambuslang, a town close to Glasgow in Scotland, as an example. Despite having a population of nearly 30,000, local businesses are struggling for customers. While COVID-19 may seem the obvious culprit, Hilda Allison—resident for over 50 years—says there is a deeper problem: ‘There’s nobody here because there’s no banks.’
Cambuslang lost all three of its banks within the space of 18 months, starting in 2016. Being home to some of Scotland’s most deprived areas, cash is an essential part of life, but residents now have to travel to the next town over, or even into Glasgow. Their spending goes with them, drawing away much-needed support for the local economy. Is there a way out of this downward spiral?
Community Access to Cash Pilot Schemes
The Community Access to Cash pilots have been developed by an independent board of banks, retailer and consumer groups chaired by Natalie Ceeney, author of 2019’s influential Access to Cash Review. Their goal is simple: finding new ways to provide cash to underbanked communities, putting payment choice back into local hands and providing a boost to local economies.
Cambuslang is one of nine areas chosen to test ways of improving access to cash and other financial services, with the other eight spread across England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales. Residents were surveyed in 2020 to establish their particular needs and the schemes were tailored accordingly.
The solutions being implemented are specific to each area, but broadly consist of a combination of one or more of the following:
- Cash deposit facilities for small businesses
- Widespread cashback from local stores
- Pop-up Post Offices and restructures of existing services
- New, free-to-use ATMs
- Smartphone apps to access cashback and financial management services
- New hubs offering Post Office transaction and retail banking services
The pilots will run until June, with regular surveys tracking their progress and a final report from Natalie Ceeney that will ultimately assess their impact.
A measure of success for the pilots is that we learn something that can be applied nationally; something we can replicate. But we reduce cash access to a numbers game at our peril. The quality of cash access is just as important as the fact that it’s there.
With 3,600 bank branches having closed across the UK since 2015, Cambuslang is one of many towns across the UK that stands to be transformed by better access to cash and banking facilities. While the Access to Cash scheme is a strong start, Which? points out it is no substitute for actual legislation to enshrine cash access in law.
Chancellor Rishi Sunak’s March 2020 Budget committed to protecting cash, but in the months since both TSB and the Co-operative Bank have announced mass branch closures.
Freedom to Pay, Our Way
An ongoing campaign by Which? seeks to preserve and enhance payment choice and includes a petition for Brits to safeguard cash, and information on how to request an ATM or report incidents of shops refusing to accept cash.
Cash is a necessity millions couldn’t live without, and a backup for everyone when online systems fail. But with banks and free-to-use ATMs disappearing at an alarming rate, we’re concerned some people may be left behind.