ROYAL Bank of Scotland’s decision to close its Tongue branch is a “hammer blow” to Sutherland, the Federation of Small Businesses’s Highlands and Islands development officer has said.
The county will be left with just two bank premises in operation after the Tongue RBS branch shuts its doors in June.
David Richardson, who is based in Clashmore, near Dornoch, said: “The Bank of Scotland’s Golspie and Clydesdale’s Brora branches, less than eight miles apart, will shortly be the only banks left standing in Sutherland, an area of some 2200 square miles.”
MP Jamie Stone is now urging Westminster and Holyrood leaders to consider a radical, new idea – compelling Scottish banks to link together to set up a jointly owned subsidiary which would have complete responsibility for face-to-face banking in Scotland.
He believes this would bring economies of scale in terms of a larger customer base in each community.
Tongue Community Council chairman Michael Simpson said the closure had left the community feeling “battered”, coming as it does on top of the centralisation of the area’s NHS out-of-hours medical service.
RBS announced last Friday that it is to close 62 branches in Scotland with the loss of 158 jobs in a move driven by the increasing number of people choosing to bank online or on mobile phones.
The taxpayer-backed lender stressed the majority of areas affected by closures would have a community banker or mobile branch available.
RBS branches at Tain and Wick as well as Tongue are earmarked to shut down. RBS’s branch in Lochinver closed in 2015.
The RBS announcement follows on from the closure this year of four Bank of Scotland branches in Sutherland – at Bonar Bridge, Dornoch, Lairg and Helmsdale. A mobile BoS unit is now visiting these villages.
David Richardson said: “Banks are marching ahead with closures, blithely ignoring three key facts – that in much of the Highlands online banking is difficult for many customers and impossible for others; that cash is still king and online banking cannot accept cash lodgements or issue change; and that tourism underpins the whole economy and tourists must have access to cash and other services.
“Tourism is about visitor spend, not visitor numbers, and tourists leaving Thurso and following the NC500 west, now have a 138-mile, three hour, 53 minute drive to the next bank, which is Ullapool and only open three days a week!
“Yes, there are a few ATMs along the way but how easy is it for visitors to find them and is this enough to satisfy their desire to spend with small businesses as they travel?”
He urged government to intervene to discourage banks from closing branches or to put an alternative in place.
MP Mr Stone has now written to Prime Minister Theresa May, chancellor Philip Hammond and First Minister Nicola Sturgeon outlining his suggestion of a new subsidiary.
He said: “A jointly organised set-up would bring economies of scale in terms of a larger customer base in each community and would also render far more affordable the local and accessible across the counter links that we surely all seek to protect and enhance across Scotland.
“Such a change would probably require primary legislation but there are historical precedents such as the railways during the last century and surely where’s there’s a will, there’s a way.”
Tongue community council chairman Mr Simpson is hoping to meet with RBS’s area manager to discuss local concerns over the closure.
He said: “I understand the branch is shutting in June so that gives us time to discuss with RBS the possibility of it staying open and what will happen if that is not the case.
“I am also interested in talking to Highlife Highland about having a van that has not just banking facilities but also a library and Citizens Advice Bureau presence.
“I am trying to be positive about this and see what we can get out of it. This comes on top of the NHS doctors’ out-of-hours situation and there is a connection.
“Basically, I think communities on the north and north west coasts are feeling a bit battered at the moment. We are fighting hard to ensure that as the world moves on, we are not forgotten.”
Francis Gunn, chairman of UpNorth, the community development trust covering Melness, Tongue and Skerray, said: “We are extremely disappointed that RBS have made this decision and the loss of three jobs in our small community is devastating.
“We are concerned that despite UpNorth!’s best efforts, Melness does not have adequate broadband coverage to allow internet banking and coverage is sporadic in other areas.
“UpNorth is also concerned that the Transport for Tongue office, currently housed in the RBS building, may be threatened, as this is an essential service which will be even more necessary should our elderly and infirm have to travel to the nearest RBS branch currently 50 miles from Melness in Thurso.
“RBS are removing this service when our area has never been busier. Tourists on the NC500 using the bank are stopping off to explore the area and use other facilities. Furthermore, we have several long term large construction projects started in Tongue thus it seems an inexplicable judgement to make at this time. We would appeal to them to rethink this decision.”