What does sharp fall in cash use mean for East Anglia?

Could coronavirus be the final nail in the coffin of cash? Picture: GETTY IMAGES

Could coronavirus be the final nail in the coffin of cash? Picture: GETTY IMAGES - Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

The use of physical money has been on the slide for years. But will Covid-19 finally spell the end and what does it mean for East Anglia?

The ancient kingdom of Lydia was situated in Western Turkey.

And it was here in the 7th century BC that some clever entrepreneur came up with a easier way of storing value: coins.

The evolution of currency was far from swift though. It wasn’t until China’s Tang dynasty between 618-907 that paper money was invented.

Soon the method captured most of the world.

But now a perfect storm including the rise of the debit card, the internet and coronavirus has physical money seemingly stumbling towards the great big bank in the sky.

Most people now use card payments rather than cash but what impact will the loss of banks on the high street and ATMs have on communities?

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Across the East of England there has been a trend in recent years for high street bank branches to close. The reasons are fairly obviously – telephone and internet banking are the new normal for many people.

But as banks have scarpered off to the internet there has actually been an increase in the number of cash machines.

Link, the firm that oversees the vast majority of Britain’s ATMs, had just 20,000 cash points in 1998. That spiked at 70,000 in 2016 but has since dropped to around 60,000.

But although the total numbers have gone up the amount of withdrawals are on a significant downward trajectory. After peaking in 2016 the number of withdrawals and people using the machines for other reasons has fallen steadily.

The rise of the smart phone and banking via apps is the reason.

And new data shows that when the country was plunged into lockdown back in March as the pandemic swept the globe and claimed hundreds of thousands of lives, more people began to quit cash.

Weekly transactions for the week commencing March 23 – the day Boris Johnson pulled Britain’s shutters down – was 21 million. A year previously the figure was closer to 55 million.

The reason for that huge drop is clear – there were hardly any places to spend money. But many of the supermarkets and essential stores that did stay open were refusing cash or at least strongly recommending customers used their cards.

The fear – which remains very real – that the virus could be spread on coins and paper money spooked many people. This was particularly acute for older people who favoured physical money previously but were now worried about the heightened risk they faced from the outbreak.

Bob Prior, 71, is the mayor of Bungay where there is only one ATM since the high street banks closed. He said: “I rarely use cash and I’ve not done for ages. But there are many people who don’t trust cards or don’t want them and still use cash.

“There’s still a reluctance and a resentment to having to use cards. One has to think of the other businesses that depend on cash going through them. The smaller businesses where they can’t really afford to pay for a card machine etc.

“You’ve got markets and charities as well. If you have a cake stall to raise money for instance you’re unlikely to be able to pay for that with a card.

“We only have one 24/7 cash machine and that runs out from time to time. We are seeking to install another 24/7 cash machine in the Town Hall.”

Jill Skinner, mayor of Swaffham, said that the town remained relatively well served by banks and ATMs but there was still a worry about banks leaving the town.

Mrs Skinner, who was elected in May, said: “Quite a lot of people still use cash – we’ve got a lot of elderly people and they haven’t gone over to cards yet.

“But I think on the whole I think people are being educated to try and do that. When Barclays left in July 2019 it was quite a shock really.

“It’s our way of life changing really. Suddenly you’ve got to either go through to Dereham to put your cheques in or you’ve got to learn pretty quickly to put them in over the internet.”

Johnnie Walker, 71, is the mayor of Eye in Suffolk. Before coronavirus he had never used a card for anything other than large purchases. He said: “I was in the Norfolk and Norwich Hospital about two weeks into lockdown and I went to buy myself a newspaper. I went to hand over my 70 pence and WH Smith said ‘We don’t accept cash. It’s card only’.

“The idea of paying 70 pence on a card just didn’t seem right to me, but now since lockdown I pay contactless most of the time.”

The town of Eye lost its last bank in 2018, but it still has a cash machine. When the old Barclays building, which houses the cash machine, was being renovated the cash machine was out of use. “The shops were overrun by people trying to get cash back,” said Mr Walker. “The post office got to a point where they were running out of cash. They had to limit how much people could get out because they could only have store so much cash on site for insurance reasons.”

Mr Walker said: “There’s a lot of elderly people who don’t have cards.

“I’ve got a friend who goes into Diss every Friday and draws cash out by cheque.

“If you’ve not got a car and you’re using public transport, you can’t just jump on a bus from Eye into Diss and stay half an hour then come back again. There is a huge gap in times between buses arriving from Eye and then going back.”