THE three incumbent East Sutherland and Edderton ward councillors have come together to negotiate options with the Bank of Scotland, following the announcement last week that four local branches are to close. Dornoch, Helmsdale, Bonar Bridge and Lairg are among 24 branches to be axed.
Cllrs Jim MacGillivray, Deirdre Mackay and Graham Phillips will be working with MPs and MSPs and are sharing in conversations with directors of the parent company, Lloyds Banking Group.
They say it is clear that the bank does not understand the special challenges which face the Highlands.
Cllr Mackay said: "Whilst we are realistic in terms of the rise in on-line banking, that realism has to work both ways in terms of the bank recognising the challenges facing rural communities. This is a case of a service being removed in advance of a viable alternative being put in place."
Cllr Phillips agreed: "The banks must recognise the social responsibility they have to the communities they serve.
"It is important to recognise that 28 per cent of the population have no access to a car and cannot travel long distances to a faraway bank branch. In any event, the internet in Sutherland is not yet fit for purpose, for most people."
Cllr MacGillivray said: "We are all dismayed with this news but are moving quickly with our colleagues to negotiate options with the bank which will work locally.
"It is important that we salvage what we can in order to provide a decent service, especially the provision of ready cash during the main tourist season.
"It has been estimated that £500,000 a month is withdrawn from the Dornoch Bank of Scotland cash machine during that time."
David Richardson, FSB’s Highlands and Islands development manager who lives at Clashmore near Dornoch, has also expressed his shock at the announcement.
He said: "The closure of four branches in south and east Sutherland and two more between here and Inverness comes as a great shock to the businesses and communities that it purports to serve.
"For one-man or woman businesses this is bad, especially if the mobile bank comes at busy times of the day and queues are long.
"It means locking up your shop while banking is attended to.
"However, it goes much further, for it is also a major issue for these businesses’ customers, and especially for older customers and visitors to the area.
"The Bank of Scotland’s own branch review data, available online, shows that 39 per cent of Lairg’s customers are over 65; 38 per cent of Bonar Bridge’s are over 65; 36 per cent of Helmsdale’s are over 65; 34 per cent of Dornoch’s are over 65.
"Assuming that they can get reasonable broadband speeds, older people often don’t know how to use a computer or are too frightened to bank online, and the thought of travelling considerable distances to the nearest available branch can be daunting.
"At a time when the North Coast 500 is really taking off it is a matter of deep regret that the Bank of Scotland is shutting up shop and walking away."