Chris Wilkins speaks out against local HSBC branch closures

A loyal customer for 30 years, Chris Wilkins was approached for comment by a national newspaper. The following article appeared in the Personal Finance section of the Mail on Sunday and on the 'This is Money' website.

"I'm determined to stop this branch from closing": Customers' battle against HSBC

By Jeff Prestridge 29 September 2012

Wilkins Southworth Chartered Accountants - Mail on Sunday article
Spelling it out: MP Helen Goodman protests

Pressure is growing on HSBC to explain the damaging branch closure programme that will leave many communities without access to High Street banking.

Between now and Christmas it will shut at least 22 branches, bringing its total closures this year to 69. Nearly a quarter of these axed branches will be in communities where there is no other bank.

HSBC has been the most aggressive bank in reducing its branch network in recent years. Indeed, some of its rivals, such as Lloyds and Royal Bank of Scotland, have pledged to remain in communities where they are the last bank.

MPs from all parties have criticised HSBC for putting profits before communities. Helen Goodman, Labour MP for Bishop Auckland, joined a protest last week at its doomed branch in Shildon, County Durham. The branch, the last in a town of 10,000 residents, is due to close on October 12.

‘I’m determined to stop this branch from closing,’ says Goodman, who has also put down an early-day Commons motion calling for HSBC to ‘review urgently’ the closure.

‘After the banking crisis, we need the big banks to re-engage with their retail customers, not to disengage.’

Goodman raised the issue in the Commons this month during business questions. She received a sympathetic response from Andrew Lansley, Leader of the House, who said branch closures had made life harder for many of his South Cambridgeshire constituents.

But the follow-up written response from Sajid Javid, Economic Secretary to the Treasury, left her underwhelmed. Javid said it was up to HSBC ‘to balance customer interests, market competition and other commercial factors when considering its strategy’.

He added: ‘The Government does not intervene in these decisions.’

Javid also said a recent deal with the Post Office would allow all HSBC and First Direct current account customers to access their accounts at post offices from next spring. He failed to mention that the tie-up does not extend to HSBC business customers, many of whom have to bank their takings regularly.

Derek French of the Campaign for Community Banking Services says: ‘The Post Office deal for personal current accounts is not enough and HSBC should come into line with a ‘‘keep open’’ pledge where it is, or becomes, last bank in order to meet the needs of small businesses, savers, clubs and charities who deal in cash and cheques. Meanwhile, the Government should not be just standing on the touchline but actively encouraging banks to seek a lasting solution such as shared branches before it is too late.’

Shared branches would enable customers of all banks to do their banking under one roof, but so far the banks have resisted such a concept, even though it has proved successful in the US.

Wilkins Southworth Chartered Accountants - Mail on Sunday Article
Anger: Loyal HSBC customer Chris Wilkins

HSBC has also provoked the wrath of Chris Wilkins, 50, who runs an accountancy business in Barnes, south-west London. The bank will close its branch there in early December, leaving Chris, a personal customer for 33 years and a business customer for 20 years, with no choice but to change banks.

‘Many of my clients prefer to pay us by cheque and we often need cash to pay local suppliers,’ he says. ‘Having the branch a few minutes away is a great convenience but HSBC now wants us to do our banking at Hammersmith or Putney.

‘That means a bus journey for one of my nine staff, which means time out of the office and greater vulnerability to mugging. I am aggrieved HSBC is paying a fine of $27.5million [£17.2million] for lax money-laundering controls in Mexico while not looking after its core clients in Britain.

"I’d have thought at such a fragile time for the economy and for business and retail communities such as those in Barnes, HSBC would be supporting businesses like mine rather than trying to alienate us."

Goodman is not the only MP to protest against HSBC’s closure programme. Sir Edward Garnier, Tory MP for Harborough in Leicestershire, has criticised the bank for earmarking the Kibworth branch for closure in late November. Like Shildon, it will be left without a High Street bank.

He says: ‘The shutting of the branch will hit the elderly, those without access to the internet, those who want to deposit cash from their businesses and shops, those who do not bank online and those without cars. It will do huge damage to HSBC’s reputation locally and gives the impression it doesn’t care about its customers.’

HSBC said its Shildon, Kibworth and Barnes branches had all suffered from ‘reduced customer activity’. The Barnes branch, it said, had been a victim of ‘customers choosing to do more of their banking nearer where they work or shop’.

The bank added that customers living in Barnes have three branches within two miles, all of which are open on a Saturday, and 15 cash machines within one mile.

On its continued branch closure programme, HSBC said: ‘Our branch network is an important distribution channel for us and we are investing more than £30million each year on improving and updating it. But we need to ensure our branches are in the right locations for our customers.

‘On occasion this means that we need to close some branches where the customer footfall has fallen dramatically.

‘Customer habits are changing and many of them choose to use the 24-hour convenience of internet banking, telephone and mobile phone banking or cash machines.

‘Furthermore, customers are banking less where they live and more where they work or do the majority of their shopping.

‘Our branch network must be ‘‘fit for purpose’’ and we have to ensure that our bank branches are located in those areas where they are actually used.’

...but it is helping M&S launch its own branches in stores

While HSBC streamlines its own branch network, it is busy backing 50 Marks & Spencer Bank branches that will be up and running by the end of next year.

M&S launched the first branch in its big Marble Arch store in central London two months ago. New branches in Dudley, Exeter, Norwich and Oxford will all open by the end of the year. The bank is a fully owned subsidiary of HSBC with profits shared between it and M&S.

Crawford Prentice, deputy chief executive of M&S Bank, would not comment on HSBC’s closure programme, but he said M&S Bank was trying to do ‘something different’ with its evolving network.

‘We are looking to open most of our banks in out-of-town shopping centres where people drive to do their shopping,’ he said. ‘We want them to do their banking at the same time.’

The bank has 3.7million customers already across its product range that spans credit cards, loans, general insurance and savings accounts.

But last week, it launched its fees-based premium current account that offers a range of benefits, from M&S vouchers through to multi-trip travel insurance. The account is aimed primarily at M&S’s 12 million shoppers.

‘Reaction to the new bank has been good,’ said Prentice. ‘Customers like the fact they can have face-to-face meetings with staff to discuss matters as well as come in to obtain or deposit cash automatically.’