Closing the Islands
Professor Joe Goldblatt
The sign upon the front door of the last local bank branch in Stromness, Orkney announced “We will close on Friday 17 June 2022.” Upon seeing this announcement I was reminded of another time when I was producing a dinner for 1000 persons in a local Washington, DC restaurant and I telephoned the owner to reconfirm the arrangement for a gala event to be held the next week. He simply and somewhat sombrely replied “We are closing tomorrow.”
As soon as I disengaged the telephone I immediately wondered why there appeared to be an ominous sense of finality in his voice. As it turned out, the restaurant was actually going into administration and the multi – million dollar restaurant was closing permanently one week prior to my event.
Therefore, as I walked away from the small branch bank in one of Scotland’s loveliest and most historic harbour communities, I similarly wondered if this was a usual closing due to staff shortages or the permanent shuttering of the only brick and mortar financial institution within 25 miles of its front door step. Upon speaking with local traders I learned that indeed the Bank of Scotland had decided that the bank would close permanently in August 2022 because according to the bank’s extensive market research “Our customers’ needs are changing.”
Only six years earlier the Royal Bank of Scotland closed their branch in Stromness and now the Bank of Scotland has cited declining usage of their branch with only 19 regular customers, a 22 percent decline in personal transactions and a 3 percent decline in business transactions as their rationale for closure.
According to one local trader, if his fellow business owners are forced to travel 25 miles by automobile to make deposits and receive coinage some business insurance policies this will require them to travel with one other to help reduce the possibility of theft. This simply means that most of these one person operated businesses will not be able to operate if they need to make their daily or weekly cash deposit that will require nearly two hours of travel time away from their premises.
How times have changed since my father took me at the age of ten to meet the president of our local branch bank. Papa led me into his grand office and we chatted for a few minutes before the tall, handsome, silver haired president proudly placed in my wee (or as the Orcadians say, ‘peedie’) hands my first ever $avings Pass Book. This personal book would record all my transactions and allow me to deposit my pocket money and other funds I had earned to build my first ever nest egg. Each time I entered the bank I proudly passed my book across to the teller and she entered the amount of my deposit in her own hand writing and then loudly and firmly stamped my book to certify my treasure had been received and would be well looked after.
Whilst I am no Luddite, I both appreciate the importance and efficiency of technology in promoting on line banking and I also realise the inherent dangers. A few years ago, my wife and I were victims of telephone bank fraud when a perfectly legitimate sounding individual with a thick British accent told us they urgently needed our bank details to prevent an impending potential theft. In fact, they were carrying out the theft as we spoke and fortunately, thanks to the Financial Ombudsmen in the United Kingdom, a lawyer in the United States and our own persistence, our total funds were recovered within ninety days. However, the shock of the ease of this theft left deep scars within us that have made us increasingly skeptical of electronic transactions.
When I need to set up a standing order or direct payment I prefer to visit my local Edinburgh branch and meet with my personal banker. I am not alone. My branch is filled most days with individuals who are over fifty years of age and wish to be able to meet with a financial authority when transacting their hard earned funds.
The impending closure of the Stromness, Orkney branch of the Bank of Scotland will have immeasurable economic and social ramifications for this small community. Rather than simply shutter the branch I wonder why the bank officials have not considered other alternatives such as allowing the local post office, which now operates from a bake shop, to handle certain financial transactions? I wonder why the banking officials have not announced a plan for the building they will now abandon? One potential use would be to convert the building into sheltered housing for local senior citizens with support from the financial community? Would this not be a very generous parting gift to the local community to show their appreciation for many years of support?
I realise that it is the preference of the majority of bank customers to utilise on line services for the majority of their transactions. However, I also wonder what may happen to the very fabric of local communities when citizens miss hearing the little local tittle tattle whilst awaiting their turn with their favourite teller? I also am concerned as to how local businesses will start, grow and thrive in the future without the guidance of a local financial lending authority who knows their community and can provide bespoke advice and counsel?
We will not in my life time return to the day when our parents introduced us to the local banker who presented us with our $avings Pass Book. Before, we entirely abandon the idea of personal banking, perhaps we should also ask what may happen if we do not continue to try and save these institutions? What we may lose in terms of the quality of our lives both in the Scottish isles and far beyond could be far greater than simply the loss of a local financial institution.
The 1000 folk who were expecting dinner in a posh local restaurant many years ago fortunately found a better home in a larger event venue because I called upon friends for help. Perhaps it is time for our bankers and politicians to work more closely together to insure that the loss of this branch and other essential services does not become part of the future long and loud death knells of our local precious and vulnerable rural and island communities.
Professor Joe Goldblatt is Emeritus Professor of Planned Events at Queen Margaret University and regularly enjoys holidays in Orkney. To learn more about his views visit www.joegoldblatt.scot