A regulator who will protect access to cash is needed as consumers face the double blow of ATMs and banks closing at an “alarming” rate, according to Which?
The consumer group said figures show that cashpoints disappeared at a rate of 488 per month between June and December last year – with over 250 free-to-use machines also closing monthly.
It said it is also concerned about bank closures leaving communities struggling, with 3,300 UK branches closing their doors since 2015.
“Urgent regulatory action” to manage these changes and intervene when necessary to protect cash as a payment method is needed, Which? said.
It warned that people will be shut out of paying for goods and services if the UK is allowed to drift into a cashless society.
Despite the rise of digital banking and contactless payments, Which? previously found nearly three-quarters (73%) of people still use cash frequently.
The consumer group is highlighting the issue in a campaign called Freedom to pay. Our way.
The campaign calls for the Government to appoint a regulator with sole responsibility for the cash infrastructure to ensure consumers and businesses can continue accessing cash.
Previous Which? research has found the UK has lost two-thirds of its branch network in the last 30 years.
And Which? said that IT glitches – including the high-profile problems last year suffered by TSB – have caused chaos for consumers.
Jenni Allen, managing director, Which? Money, said: “We have serious concerns that the alarming rate of cashpoint and bank branch closures risks leaving people facing an uphill battle to access the cash they rely on.
“Cash is also a vital backup as fallible digital payments grow in popularity – so the Government must appoint a regulator to oversee these changes and ensure no-one is excluded and left struggling to go about their daily lives.”
The Federation of Small Businesses (FSB) is campaigning jointly with Which? on the issue.
Its national chairman Mike Cherry said: “The rapid pace of bank branch and cashpoint closures is hurting small businesses all over the UK.”
He said bank branches and cashpoints create a “natural draw for high streets and town centres”.
“With our cash infrastructure increasingly under attack, it’s time for a regulator to be given explicit responsibility for protecting access to notes and coins,” he added.
Concerns about ATM closures were heightened last year when a row broke out about changes to the future funding of cashpoints.
ATM network Link recently said cash machine operators are to be given “super premiums” to help keep ATMs in remote areas open from April.
Around 1,000 cash machines will initially be eligible and the enhanced premiums will vary in size depending on how well a particular ATM is used.
A spokesman for trade association UK Finance said: “Bank branches play an important role in the life of local communities and decisions to close them are never taken lightly.”
He said maintaining access to cash is vital to ensure no customer is left behind and continued: “This is why all the high street banks have arranged for everyday banking services to be available through 11,500 Post Offices across the country and mobile bank branches to reach more rural communities, while investing in the existing ATM network to ensure continuity of service when ATMs are no longer commercially viable to operate.”
A Link spokesman said: “Link agrees with Which? that free access to cash is vital for consumers.
He continued: “Link’s financial inclusion programme is key to ensuring that the UK’s cash infrastructure continues to deliver free access to cash for consumers regardless of the marked decline in cash usage.”
A spokesman for the Payment Systems Regulator (PSR) said: “We know that cash is still important for large numbers of people, even though electronic payments are growing in popularity.
“We are holding Link to account for its commitment to preserve the geographic spread of FTU (free-to-use) ATMs; we’re satisfied so far with the way Link has responded to our specific direction we gave it in October 2018, but we’ll be continuing to check on the effectiveness of its measures in ensuring widespread free access to cash.
“In the longer term, appropriate access to cash services needs to be retained to protect choice in how people pay for things, and we will work, alongside the other authorities, to promote that choice.”
A Treasury spokesman said: “Technology has transformed banking for millions of people, making it easier and quicker to carry out financial transactions and pay for services.
“This is to be welcomed, but we also recognise the continued importance of cash, especially for more vulnerable people.
“In 2015 we set up the Payment Systems Regulator to ensure that the UK’s payment systems work in the interests of their users, and they are closely monitoring developments within ATM provision.
“While the decision to close bank branches is a commercial decision, we understand the impact it can have on communities.
“Banks must now give customers as much notice as possible when a branch is closing, and ensure they are made aware of the options they have locally to continue to access banking services.”