NatWest has become the first bank in 2022 to announce it will close some of its outlets as customers shun branches for mobile banking.
The high street lender will shut 32 branches across its NatWest and Royal Bank of Scotland brands in England and Wales over the next year.
The bank, which is majority owned by the taxpayer, said the closures were a result of customers shifting to mobile and online banking “because it is faster and easier for people to manage their financial lives”. It confirmed 21 of the closures would be NatWest branches, and 11 of them RBS.
Planned closures include the RBS branch in NatWest’s headquarters in Bishopsgate, in the heart of the City of London.
Most staff will be moved to other branches, but 12 jobs will be at risk.
A report by the banking trade body UK Finance underlined the rapid pace of change in spending habits during the pandemic, with more people retreating from cash and opting for phones and computers to pay for goods and services online.
NatWest’s move may fuel concerns about millions of people being left behind as the shift to a cashless society speeds up. About 1.2 million consumers mainly used cash for their day-to-day spending during 2020, down from 2.1 million people in 2019.
Addressing concerns about how the closures will impact groups who do not use digital services, the bank said: “We take our responsibility seriously to support the people who face challenges in moving online, so we are investing to provide them with support and alternatives that work for them.”
NatWest will contact vulnerable customers before the closures to discuss alternative payment methods, a spokesperson said, alongside the rollout of a new nationwide postal cash delivery service.
The round of cuts comes after consumer organisation Citizens Advice revealed more than 200 post offices have closed in the past two years – the equivalent of two a week – leaving “huge gaps” in communities that depend on them for essential tasks such as paying bills. Older and disabled people, carers, and people who do not use the internet are also disproportionately affected, the report said.
The government owns about 52% of NatWest after spending £45bn bailing out the lender 13 years ago. It plans to sell a stake over the next year in a trading plan that will return the bank to majority private ownership.
Analysts predict the bank’s operating profit before tax in 2021, to be announced on Friday, will be just above £4bn.