Bringing banking back to the community

In January I received a letter from the ASB Bank’s general manager of personal banking to say that after “extensive consideration” they had made the decision to permanently close the Waiuku branch.

I was very disappointed. The major banks have been steadily closing their doors in Waiuku over the last few years, and the ASB was the last one standing.

ASB justified the decision by saying that customer visits to the bank have steadily declined over the last four years and it’s part of the larger trend for Kiwis to do their banking online. They estimate that 90 per cent of their personal banking customers are “digitally active” and prefer to manage their everyday banking online.

That may be so, but conversely it means that 10 per cent of their customers would still prefer to visit a physical bank and speak to a real person. That’s a lot of people. If the queues at the ASB branch next door to my electorate office are any indication (and it’s the same for all the banks in Pukekohe), there is still a considerable demand for in-person banking.

It’s the same for other communities across my electorate. Pukekohe is now the last main centre for physical bank branches. To the south of the electorate, the nearest bank branches are at Te Rapa and Chartwell, north of Hamilton.

We are still a long way from being a cashless society. Charities, op shops and many community service providers still deal mainly in cash. Bank ATMs may be able to handle cash deposits and withdrawals, but they cannot answer queries about mortgages or loans or credit cards. Many people, especially the elderly, are wary of making decisions about their banking via a chatbot or online. I believe there is still a need for physical banking facilities in a township such as Waiuku.

The answer is a ‘regional banking hub’. A pilot programme of hubs is currently underway in seven small towns across the country with all the major banks participating – BNZ, ANZ, ASB and Westpac, along with Kiwibank and TSB. Each hub provides basic services for all the banks, along with a Smart ATM for cash withdrawals and deposits, support staff and technology support. Most of the hubs have a representative from each bank on site for a few hours on separate days for in-person meetings.

The pilot programme is being run by the New Zealand Banking Association (NZBA) in an attempt to find a way of providing banking services to smaller townships and rural communities. I asked the NZBA’s chief executive whether Waiuku might be an opportunity for another banking hub to be established, but they have no plans to open any further hubs until the current trial finishes at the end of July this year.

I am very aware that the loss of bank branches in smaller communities is happening in many parts of the country. Once the NZBA’s trial has finished, I will certainly be talking to the banking industry again about whether a regional hub may be feasible in Waiuku.

Photo - The ASB Bank in Pukekohe is next door to my electorate office – it is always busy with people waiting to speak to bank staff.