Banking on the High Street

The most common street name in the United Kingdom is “High Street”. Did you know that it is derived from the Old English word “heah” which means “most important”?

Social historian Juliet Gardiner explains that “it was in the 1860s and 70s that the High Street as we know it came about. Because of urbanisation, people no longer had the facilities to grow food themselves or keep livestock. It was then that market stalls became shops, with fixed prices, customer service and home deliveries to entice people in.”

However, it was during Edwardian times that shopping came of age, when product choice matched customer service thanks to the riches of the Empire. And its popularity was boosted by the Votes for Women movement with suffragettes focussing on women having somewhere respectable to go on their own – and this meant tea shops and department stores.

The High Street experienced a second golden age in the 1960s when Britain experienced an affluent decade. Mass production, the emergence of a disposable, fast and cheap fashion and the 1964 Resale Prices Act changed the make up and purpose of the UK’s High Street.


Today, a wander along any of our nation’s high streets will provide glimpses of the retail histories of the buildings with trade names in brick, stonework or mosaics still visible. These were popular early twentieth century advertising and point to former retail identities.  These glimpses show how a shop might have transitioned from bakery to tea shop to milk bar to chain cafe, or perhaps, an ironmonger to penny bazaar to record shop to mobile phone outlet to a vacant store.
 
Similarly, over the past few decades the way we consume our entertainment has radically changed. In the 1960’s we may have purchased or rented a TV from a small independent retailer in a local market town, in the 1980’s we would probably have purchased a TV from Dixons on the high street in our County Town and, at the beginning of the 2020’s, an Amazon van now delivers our TV from a “cloud” in the sky.
 
21st Century out-of-town supermarkets, hypermarkets, retail parks and online shopping have once again changed our high streets with redundant stores that once not only served communities’ material needs but were the focus for many of their activities. A place of provisioning and commerce, a meeting place; a hub of social as well as monetary exchange has been disrupted.
 
The term “high street” has reverted to having a more generic meaning. People now often talk about “high street” shops, when what they mean is national chains of shops. As the 21st century progresses it is becoming possible for a chain of “high street stores” to only have shops in out-of-town shopping centres – and not to have any shops actually on a road named High Street at all.
 
This disappearance of the butcher, the baker and the candlestick maker, the alternative online presence of our supermarkets and the streaming of entertainment services are not the only functions of the high street to be disrupted. Our banks and building societies have been and will increasingly be part of the transformation into the next age of the composition and function of our high streets.
 
In 1986 there were circa 21,000 bank and building society branches in the UK but it was from the mid-1990s that the number of branches in the UK began to fall steadily. This decline accelerated between 2012 and 2021 with the total number of bank and building society branches falling by 34%. Based on ONS data this reduction in branch numbers has accelerated further to leave just under 10,000 operational branches at the end of 2021. The indications are that it won’t be long until this reduces to just 5,000 branches and it is conceivable that a total of 2,000 branches across the United Kingdom is not too far off. 
 
The societal transformation to a less cash society supported by a new digital age means that we don’t leave home without a smartphone in our pocket – a device that is a fully functioning bank, a ubiquitous payment device and has the ability to trigger the acquisition of cash at a wide range of outlets. So, with the majority of our banking needs now met digitally is it time to let the Eagle fly away and the horse to canter off into a new banking age?
 
Just as supermarkets are focusing their high street presence on creative ‘local’ and ‘neighbourhood hub’ formats our banks and building societies are addressing their empty banking halls by relinquishing their high street real estate through the development of shared banking hubs, banking services delivered by the Post Office, obtaining cash back in stores without purchase and the installation of independent free to use ATM’s.
 
As banks and building societies seek to relinquish their high street presence a landmark agreement between banks to provide shared services to ensure continued access to cash in communities across the UK was announced in late 2021. In this new approach LINK takes up a new and independent co-ordinating role to continue to protect access to cash. LINK will commission new services such as shared banking hubs and ATMs where needed to meet the cash needs of the community as a whole and not just the customers or members of one bank or building society.
 
Given that access to cash is a predominant theme when considering the ongoing need for today’s high street banking presence or even the developing alternatives to acquiring cash it is important to plan for a transition from today’s “less-cash” to future “cash-less” society.
 
Just 30 years after peak cheque use writing a cheque is a distant memory for some and an alien concept for many very soon the same will be said of visiting a “high street” bank. It’s true that new services such as shared banking hubs and ATMs will plug a gap caused by a reduction in branches but now is the time to consider the creation of a national programme to lead us through the regeneration of the services provided by a “high street” bank.
 
This certainly worked for the switchover from analogue to digital TV and the transition to a decimal currency:

In the early 2000’s the demise of analogue TV was co-ordinated by Digital UK, a multimedia, multiyear centrally delivered not for profit organisation working towards specific ‘cut over’ dates.

If we look back at the decimalisation of our currency in 1971 we see that the Decimal Currency Board was set up to manage the transition to our new decimal currency.

Time to consider the creation of a national programme to lead us through the regeneration of the services provided by a “high street” bank?

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