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Churches to help with changes on the high street

09 October 2020

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CHURCHES, shops, and other premises could be used to provide cash services in remote communities that have been abandoned by the high-street banks.

A trial project in nine affected locations will be launched later this year in an effort to solve problems caused by bank closures and the withdrawal of cash machines.

Solutions being trialled range from an advice service in a Methodist chapel to shops offering cashback to people, even if they do no shopping, and local deposit points where small traders can “bank” their day’s takings.

The trials have been developed in the wake of last year’s independent report Access to Cash Review, which found that eight million people in Britain relied on cash, ranging from people with no bank account to those who were not comfortable with digital payments.

“It is critical that we find ways to protect the viability of cash, for consumers and communities alike,” Natalie Ceeney, who chairs the review, said. “These pilots are designed to find sustainable ways to keep cash viable locally, which, if successful, can then be rolled out more widely.”

The project is supported by the banks, consumer groups, and charities. Details of the schemes to be trialled in each area are due to be released later this year, but already 15 shops in four areas will trial the purchase-free cashback system.

In Burslem, Staffordshire — which, in 2018, became the first town in the UK with more than 20,000 residents to have neither a bank nor ATM on its high street — shops will offer cashback facilities, and the Swan Bank Methodist Church will host video-link workshops with bank staff on subjects such as opening an account and setting a personal budget.

The church’s office manager, Alison Lynley, said: “Later, once the Covid situation eases, the bank staff can provide one-to-one advice. We can do it in a social environment in our coffee lounge; so people can get social interaction which helps with isolation. That works very well with the way we want to go as a social hub.”

The other pilot sites are in Ampthill, Bedfordshire; Botton, North Yorkshire; Cambuslang, Lanarkshire; Denny, near Falkirk; Hay-on-Wye, Powys; Lulworth Camp, in Dorset; Millisle, Co. Down; and Rochford, Essex. Reports on their effectiveness will be published next summer.

Eric Leenders, the managing director of UK Finance, which represents British banks, said that the sector was committed to ensuring that access to cash remained “free and widely accessible to those who need it”. The policy and advocacy chairman of the Federation of Small Businesses, Martin McTague, said: “While contactless undoubtedly marks the safest way to pay in the current climate, we have to ensure that coronavirus doesn’t cause us to sleepwalk into a cashless society we’re not ready for yet.”

A spokeswoman for the Methodist Church, Rachel Lampard, said: “Churches are not called to move in to replace the responsibilities of banks. Yet they are called to listen to the particular needs of their local communities, and work with them to enable them to fulfil their potential. In some areas, such as Burslem, this may involve working with bank staff. In other areas, it might be supporting a credit union or running a debt-advice centre.

“The move to a cashless society has been very convenient for many. Yet for some people, especially those on low incomes, cash is a really important way of managing money. Others do not have bank accounts, or have restrictions which means they are restricted in how they can use cards.”

The Church at the Margins officer for the Methodist Conference, Eunice Attwood, said that it was not trying to start a bank or offer financial services, but was offering “its wholehearted commitment to the gospel of Christ in responding to the real challenges and issues of peoples’ lives by partnering with others.

“This is reflected in the Reset the Debt campaign recently launched by the Joint Public Issues Team [News, 2 October]. Church at the Margins hopes to build on these partnerships in social justice, by gathering people into Christian communities, where lives are transformed by the gospel of Christ.”

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