FEARS that large parts of Ross-shire could become “cash deserts” because of proposed changes to ATMs have set alarm bells ringing at a time when anger is already mounting over the raft of bank closures hitting the county.
Britain’s largest independent cash machine operators have warned they may have to close thousands of ATMs or start charging consumers to withdraw money if banks go ahead with plans to cut the fees paid by card issuers.
North politicians are concerned at changes which could threaten rural or seldom-used cashpoints, raising fears that large areas could be left without easy access to cash – and potentially dealing a major blow to the tourist trade currently booming on the back of record-breaking cruise liner visits to Invergordon and the North Coast 500 route.
Link, the company that oversees many free-to-use ATMs across the country, is under pressure to reduce the amount it charges the banks to allow customers to use the machines, from around 25p per withdrawal to 20p.
Independent ATM operator NoteMachine said the push by some banks to reduce their own costs was being led by RBS and added: “If the change is implemented the cost of maintaining the network would fall on consumers in a direct transfer of the financial responsibility currently held by the banks.
“Rural communities are already facing limited access to financial services through a wide-reaching programme of bank branch closures.”
NoteMachine is calling on the Westminster government to intervene and prevent the collapse of the Link system and the disintegration of the free-to-access machine network in the UK.
A spokesman added: “Without action consumers will pay the cost.”
The threat comes at a worrying time for the Highlands with RBS set to close 62 branches in Scotland, amongst them Tain and Kyle of Lochalsh.
This concern was echoed by Ross, Skye and Lochaber MP Ian Blackford, himself a former banker.
He said: “This is a further cause for concern as the very banks who are closing branches and leaving communities without a service are now putting pressure on ATM providers to reduce their fees by as much as 20 per cent.
“If they succeed in this then it may no longer be profitable for the company to support ATMs in rural areas and either have them removed or levy a charge on the user – both of which are unacceptable. There is no point in banks claiming that there are alternative ways of accessing money after the branch is closed, if then by their actions they cause them to be taken away as well.
“It is time for banks to accept that they have a responsibility to the communities which have supported them for generations.”
Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey MP Drew Hendry said: “Over the past few years we have seen a mass exodus of banks from our rural communities, so it is little wonder that we get nervous when we hear the word consultation from these operators.
“I will be writing to the chairman of UK Link network to ask to meet with him and for reassurances that this consultation will not lead to even more ATM closures.
“The UK government is already sitting on its hands while banks make promises they simply don’t keep, and here we now have the risk of more ATM closures. It is not on. A review of the banking services is urgently needed, and I will continue to raise this issue in Parliament.”
Nicky Morgan, who chairs the Commons Treasury Committee, said any big fall in the number of ATMs would “clearly be of concern” and has has written to the head of the Link network to voice her concern.
The ATM Industry Association said that this could cause problems of access for customers – a concern picked up by Ms Morgan and her committee of MPs.
She said: “It seems intuitive that a 20 per cent reduction in the interchange fee received by an ATM operator may mean that some machines are no longer economically viable.”
She noted however, that there were plans for subsidies when an ATM was not viable.
There are fears of “ATM deserts” but Link said such worries were misplaced.
Link said the changes – which would come into effect next April - would help protect the network, which currently includes 55,000 free-to-use machines.
Link chairman Sir Mark Boleat said: “We do not envisage any scenario where there will be areas of the UK which will not continue to have free access to their money. Our proposals include a strong financial inclusion programme that will ensure that there is positive impact on financial inclusion.”
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