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The UK is facing an acute shortage of free-to-use ATMs, leaving consumers who rely on face-to-face banking services and cash to pay for everyday essentials at risk of being cut adrift, a new study has warned.
New research from Which? found nearly a quarter of ATMs have vanished since 2018 and almost half of the UK’s bank branches have closed since 2015.
According to the consumer group, 4,685 bank branches have shut their doors, with a further 226 already scheduled to close by the end of this year, with 12,178 free-to-use ATMs axed.
Which? warned that elderly consumers, those aged 65 and over, who are most likely to reply on cash as a payment method, made up 23% of the population across the 17 areas with poor access to cash.
Meanwhile, those living in rural areas, where residents often have to travel for miles to reach their nearest alternative source of cash, are also among the most reliant on it. However, digital infrastructure can be poor in these areas, making it harder for residents to embrace online banking and payments, Which? said.
The analysis revealed that the rate of branch closures in rural areas outstripped those in urban regions. It said that since 2015 the banking network in rural communities has been cut by 50.7%, compared with 47.3% in urban areas.
On average, rural constituencies have just 0.1 bank branches per 10 square kilometres and 1.1 ATMs, compared with 2.6 branches per 10 square kilometres in urban areas and 31.3 ATMs.
The group called on the government to introduce legislation to protect cash in next month’s Queen’s Speech, warning that "another year of inaction could risk an irretrievable collapse" of Britain’s cash system. It also suggested that the Financial Conduct Authority should regulate cash services.
Jenny Ross, Which? money editor, said: "While many consumers have embraced digital banking, there are still millions, including the elderly, vulnerable and isolated, who aren’t yet ready or willing to make that switch — and they must be protected.
"With just two weeks to go until the Queen’s Speech, it really is now or never to halt the cash crisis.
"Though banking industry proposals for action are welcome, what’s needed most is the legislation promised by the government to protect cash. This should also include making the FCA the key regulator to protect cash services."