JEFF PRESTRIDGE: Banks may have given up on cash, but millions of you haven’t

Whatever regulators and Bank of England officials may say, cash remains the oil that helps power the engine of our challenged economy. Hard money – five pound notes, 50p coins – no cryptocurrencies.

While the big banks are not pushing us towards cryptocurrencies, they are eager (some say too eager) to change the way we bank. They want to do more online or via an app, and less via a branch or ATM. More contactless, less use of cash.

This desire to turn us all into digital customers explains why banks are closing branches en masse – 737 announced in just over a year, with many more to come. It’s also why free-to-use ATM numbers are rapidly dwindling.

Still, the demand for access to cash — and money deposit services — won’t disappear as quickly as banks may want it to. For many small businesses and the elderly, cash remains king.

The key to the future of cash is effective legislation followed by strict regulation – both of which have long been promised by the government and the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) respectively.

Note: shoppers will always want to use cash for purchases – even if the banks don’t like it

Yet it seems increasingly unlikely that the increased security of access that these two steps should guarantee will make haste. We could be well into 2024 before the FCA starts to properly set itself up to defend our right to cash.

In the meantime, we have to keep our fingers crossed and hope that Cash Access UK comes to the rescue. This organization has been tasked with ensuring continued nationwide access to cash against a backdrop of branch and ATM closures.

Life isn’t easy for Cash Access UK. It is financed by the big banks – thrift is their watchword – and its work is dictated by strict rules set by the banking giants.

But, aided by the Link ATM network, this nonprofit has the right to allocate parts of its budget to creating banking hubs where communities have lost their last bank branch.

Operated by the Post Office, these hubs allow customers of all major banks and building societies to access and do their banking – some of which can receive assistance from one of their own bank’s employees.

Cash Access UK’s record of establishing hubs is patchy to say the least. Only four – of the 38 promised – are operational, although two more (Troon, Ayrshire and Acton, West London) are due to be commissioned in the coming months.

The slow rollout isn’t entirely the organization’s fault. Suitable premises must be found, leases must be signed, planning permission can take a long time (particularly in Scotland and Northern Ireland) and renovations don’t happen overnight. But officials believe that once momentum kicks in, the rollout will accelerate (currently it takes at least a year from when a hub is recommended to work).

Cash Access UK is also considering installing temporary hubs in communities that lose their last bank branch before a permanent hub can be opened. This would shorten the time a community is without a bank other than a local post office.

In time, the organization hopes to have a network of 200 hubs. Imaginative? Maybe, but it’s good that it thinks big.

I’m sure Derek French, who has been at the forefront of campaigning for banking hubs (with a lot of support, I hasten to add, from The Mail on Sunday), would have a win if we hit 200.

Cash Access UK is also exploring ways to make life easier for small businesses that need to make cash deposits quickly and securely. This week it is announcing the pilot of new style deposit services in 16 communities including Ilfracombe in North Devon, Shanklin on the Isle of Wight and Holyhead on Anglesey.

These post office-based pilots will use more automation to ensure cash deposits are counted quickly — and include priority counters that small businesses can use to do their banking in privacy.

It is also to be hoped that in time the banks – gently urged by Cash Access UK – will put aside some of their petty differences and agree to adapt their ATMs so that they can receive deposits from all bank customers, not just of themselves.

An easy thing to do, I’m reliably told. But we’re not there yet – with the likes of NatWest amenable to such a change and others (namely the one who likes to fill our screens with black horses) not so enthused.

A few days ago I met Gareth Oakley, CEO of Cash Access UK.

Having worked in banking for more than 30 years – with a focus on small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) – he is optimistic that the pilots will encourage small businesses “to continue accepting cash from their customers.”

Let’s hope he’s right and that the pilots encourage the post office to make such user-friendly services the norm, not the exception.

Access to cash. A necessity. Today, tomorrow and far into the future.

How a lost 29 pence cost a whopping £44 in interest

Wrong: Peter and Jenny Wall, who normally erases her balance

Wrong: Peter and Jenny Wall, who normally erases her balance

Eight days ago I ran into reader Peter Wall at the Hawthorns, home of West Bromwich Albion FC.

Over a cup of steaming Bovril, he told me how his other half always pays off her credit card bill every month to avoid interest charges.

But in January she accidentally paid £3,032 – not £3,032.29 as requested. The result was an interest expense of £44.47.

While she successfully contested the charges because she made a real mistake, the financial moral of this story is simple: If you don’t want to pay interest, free up your balance completely.

Happy to help in the fight for justice

Sometimes it’s nice to be cheered up by a letter from a reader, especially if you’ve just had to wade through piles of budget paperwork. So thank you to John Holden, from Pontypool, for thanking me for helping him get most of his money back from an investment in failed fund group Arch Cru.

Although it took some time, John has now recovered most of the £20,000 he invested 12 years ago. “I am now closing the book on this regrettable episode,” he told me last week. “But I want to thank you for your tireless, public-facing and highly effective campaign to get justice for investors like me.”

John, it’s my pleasure. Let’s hope my campaign to get justice for investors in Woodford Equity Income is equally successful. It is no coincidence that the fund managers for Arch Cru and Woodford were Link Group (unrelated to Link, the operator of the ATM network).

All change at Boots

Of all the loyalty cards lurking in my wallet, I like Boots Advantage the most – fourpence worth of points for every £1 spent.

As sad as this may sound, nothing excites me more at lunchtime than discovering that the bath salts I’ve put in my Boots shopping basket before a long evening of bathing will cost me nothing more than the accumulated points on my Discount Card.

Speaking of money, from May every £1 spent gets just three pence worth of points

Speaking of money, from May every £1 spent gets just three pence worth of points

But starting in May, I’ll have to spend more to rack up enough points to buy Doctor Teal’s Pure Epsom Salt Soaking Solution (greatly infused with the scent of lavender, by the way). This is because every £1 I spend then earns me just three pence worth of points.

The only consolation is that points earned before the May deadline keep their value (quite rightly so too). And because of my age, I still get eight pence for every £1 I spend on Boots’ branded products and selected exclusives.

From Dr. Teal. I’m not for change.

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