The Australian Prudential Regulation Authority (APRA) confirmed on Wednesday that a major chunk of the nation’s bank branches have disappeared.
It comes as 129,000 outraged Australians have called for a guarantee that access to banking will not continue to shrink.
APRA found that in the last 12 months to June 2023, a total of 424 branches — 11 per cent of Australia’s overall branches — vanished.
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That data also reveals that 122 of those branches — seven per cent of Australia’s branches — were located in regional and remote areas.
“This continues a trend that has seen branch numbers decline by 34 per cent in regional and remote areas, and 37 per cent overall, since the end of June 2017,” APRA said in a statement on Wednesday.
Annual data from the banking regulator reflects the anecdotal experiences of many customers, whose concerns are currently being investigated in a Senate Committee Inquiry into bank closures in regional Australia.
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“APRA is also closely following the progress of the Senate inquiry into bank closures in regional Australia and will continue to support its work,” APRA said.
Cash Welcome campaign spokesperson Jason Bryce launched a petition in late March — pushing for guaranteed access to banking and cash in regional areas — which has currently received 129,000 signatures.
He said in response to the APRA findings on Wednesday: “Australians don’t want to lose access to cash or their right to choose cash to pay for essential goods and services.”
“Even people who don’t use cash every day need cash occasionally or when systems go offline.
“If I buy bottled water, that doesn’t mean I want the water pipes to my home dismantled.
“Many bank branches are being closed despite continuing heavy foot traffic and even growing numbers of customers.”
Banks claims backfire in Senate Inquiry
The Senate Inquiry, ongoing since February, heard that the bank closures were in line with customer behaviour and a wider digitisation of the industry.
Australian Banking Association chief executive Anna Bligh also said that mandates obliging banks to keep some regional branches open would divert money away from critical cybersecurity technology.
NAB Group CEO Ross McEwan told the Senate Inquiry last month: “The decision to close a branch is done with careful consideration of how our customers are visiting and using the branch, the availability of alternative banking options and our ability to attract talented bankers to serve our customers.”
“Only three per cent of our personal banking customers do their banking exclusively through a branch.”
Commonwealth Bank similarly claimed, before a planned closure of a branch in the regional Junee Shire, that fewer than 100 people were visiting that branch each week.
But when the Senate Inquiry moved into the regional NSW Riverina town last month, it heard a different story.
Junee Shire Council general manager James Davis disputed Commonwealth Bank’s claim, telling the Senate Inquiry that council staff personally counted the number of customers visiting that branch over four weeks, while it operated on reduced hours ahead of the planned closure.
They recorded up to 323 customers each week, roughly 26 customers per hour, or one every three minutes, he said last month.
APRA confirmed hundreds of bank branches had closed in the 12 months to June. Credit: Change.org
The Commonwealth Bank halted the closure of the Junee branch earlier this year, and in July announced its one-year moratorium on further regional shutdowns would be extended until 2026.
“As you’re aware, bank closures are having a disproportionate impact on rural Australia over our city and metropolitan counterparts,” Davis said.
“The big four banks are meddling in a form of social engineering by forcing their loyal customers into banking practices they do not want or are unable to access.”
Junee’s then-mayor Neil Smith added: “Let’s turn the focus on a bit less economic rationalism and a little bit more on the people: we all know how much these banks make, let’s share the money around a little.”
An Inquiry report by the Senate Committee is due in December.
– With AAP
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