Round the corner by the grocery store stood Darling Doris thirty years or more

My Darling Doris

Formed in 1985, Fat and Frantic were a London-based pop music group who wrote all their own material, playing a wide variety of musical styles ranging from manic skiffle through rock ‘n roll to a cappella which they sometimes described as “piffle” – a mix of punk and skiffle.

The group were also somewhat notorious for once receiving a particularly bad live review from Damon Wise in the music paper Sounds which closed with the line “Fat and Frantic ruined my weekend and I hate them for it”, a line which the group went on to use extensively in their publicity.

During the 1980s, Fat and Frantic wrote a song, “My Darling Doris”, as part of the campaign to stop the decommissioning of the red telephone box. The song lyrics describe the red telephone box as a characterful community beacon being replaced.

The powerful closing words of the song being “Now they’ve taken my Darling Doris away. How can I forgive them?”

Clearly this was a niche band from the 1980’s, so here’s a snippet of “My Darling Doris”:

Fat And Frantic – Darling Doris

Round the corner by the grocery store

Stood Darling Doris thirty years or more

Never out of order, never vandalised

She had a kind of mystery that nothing could disguise

We’d queue for hours to use her phone

Savour times with her alone

Artists came to draw

Reporters came to write

As Doris stood there proudly

That beacon of the night

But now they’ve taken my Darling Doris away

Yeah they’ve taken my Darling Doris away

If you are sufficiently inclined, you’ll even find the song on Spotify: My Darling Doris.

A phone housed in its own little shelter

From millennials to Gen Z a phone housed in its own little shelter outside in the middle of the street makes absolutely no sense, but for their parents and grandparents the red metal and glass outdoor cubicle gracing the streets was an important part of the fabric of daily life.

At their peak, in the mid-1990s, the British population of phone boxes was about 100,000 whereas today there are just over 20,000 working phone boxes in the UK.

With a high proportion of mobile phone ownership, it is not surprising that only five million calls were made from phone boxes in the year to May 2020. Interestingly, almost 150,000 were to emergency services; 25,000 were made to ChildLine and 20,000 calls to Samaritans.

Under plans drawn up by Ofcom (the phone regulator) about 5,000 public phone boxes around the UK will be protected from closure in areas of high accident rates or poor mobile phone signal. The four criteria designed to protect a telephone box, of which only one needs to apply, are:

  • its location is not covered by all four main mobile networks
  • it is located at an accident or suicide hotspot
  • more than 52 calls have been made from it over the past 12 months
  • or exceptional circumstances mean there is a need for a public call box.

In considering whether to remove an individual phone box, BT state that they take their regulatory obligations seriously. BT will formally consult with local communities before any action is taken and carry out phone box removals in strict adherence to Ofcom guidelines and, where appropriate, with the consent of local authorities.

Phone boxes and ATMs are experiencing a common journey

Whilst our national affinity with phone boxes might not extend to the humble ATM, the unfolding story of the UK’s ATM network is following a similar journey.

On 27 June 1967, according to Barclays, the world’s first ATM (automated teller machine) was ceremoniously unveiled at a branch of Barclays Bank in Enfield, north London. The UK’s next five ATMs were installed in Hove, Ipswich, Southend, Luton and Peterborough.

The then Barclays deputy chairman Sir Thomas Bland was given the honour of drawing back a velvet curtain installed for the purpose, while comedy actor Reg Varney, best known for the sitcom On the Buses, made the first withdrawal – although he wasn’t suddenly cash rich, as the machine only permitted users to withdraw £10 at a time.

From humble beginnings

By 1969 Midland Bank (now HSBC) were rolling out their own ATM’s, Lloyds Bank introduced their ‘Cashpoint’ ATM solution in 1972. By 1975 Barclays ATM estate had increased to 257 and they joined with Lloyds, Royal Bank of Scotland and Bank of Scotland to form a four bank cash machine network in 1987.

By 1993, half of UK adults were regular users of the UK’s ATMs and in 1996 the one billionth ATM transaction was processed across the LINK network.

The ATM networks (Matrix, MINT and LINK) consolidated under the banner LINK in 2000, which also was the year that saw the general withdrawal of charges for using ATMs.

LINK is now the UK’s largest cash machine network, connecting virtually all the UK’s ATMs and providing communities with access to cash through services such as cashback at retailers’ tills and Banking Hubs.

LINK is the only way banks and building societies can offer their customers access to cash across the whole of the UK. All the UK’s main debit and ATM card issuers are LINK Members and cash machine operators join LINK in order to offer cash to the 100 million plus LINK-enabled UK cards in circulation.

The LINK Network is a fundamental part of the UK’s payments infrastructure and cash machines are by far the most popular channel for cash withdrawal in the UK, used by millions of consumers every week.

A declining ATM estate dispensing less cash

According to LINK the number of free to use ATM machines in the UK have dropped by more than a fifth in four years – from 52,358 in 2018 to 40,830.

When compared with the volume of ATM transactions to the week before the first COVID lockdown (w/e 13 March 2020) the volume of ATM transactions has decreased by 29% and UK Finance estimate that just one in every 20 transactions will be made using cash by 2031.

This has led to LINK warning that bank branches and ATMs are closing at a worrying rate which is leading to the country’s cash infrastructure experiencing “death by a thousand cuts”.

An estimated 5m people across the UK currently relying on cash – many in rural locations or the less well off – are at risk of being left behind and more needs to be done to help them adapt to digital payments.

New ways of acquiring cash

The story of phone boxes and ATMs have many similarities – mobile phones, VOIP and Zoom have all played their part in the demise of the red phone kiosk. Similarly, the UK’s diminishing ATM estate is due to digital payments forming a greater proportion of our payment mix.

For those that need or choose to rely on cash, the increased closures of bank branches and the reduction in ATMs require people to find alternative ways to obtain their bank notes.

Fortunately, cashback without purchase; community ‘free-to-use’ ATMs; increased banking services at the Post Officeand One Banks, plus shared banking hubs, will fill the gap left by the hole in the wall and the adoption of bank branches by the hospitality industry.

Make it into a micro-brewery?

There is, however, one key difference between the much-loved red phone box and the cash dispensing ATM.

Whilst many communities have declared their love for their red phone box: more than 6,500 have been adopted across the UK via BT’s Adopt a Kiosk scheme. They have turned them into lifesaving defibrillator units, mini libraries, micro-breweries. It is incredibly unlikely that we’ll see communities declaring their undying love for the functional ATM and converting them to dispense books or, perhaps, become a ‘pop up’ art gallery.

Or even the UK’s ‘smallest off licience’

An off-licence which claims to be the “smallest in the UK” has set up shop in a traditional red telephone box. Run by Saul Press, The Beer Hatch hopes to stock more than 50 craft beers from the Grade II listed red box in Tombland, Norwich.

Protecting our access to cash

Far more important than focussing on retaining physical ATMs, it is encouraging to see the banking industry, regulators and the government turning their attention to protecting our access to cash.

Just as Ofcom recognises the importance of protecting the remaining the UK’s telephone kiosks with specific guidelines and criteria, we’ve recently seen LINK take up a new role as the Cash Action Group’s dedicated co-ordinating body. LINK will independently review the impact of all changes to banking provision in communities and 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.

Additionally, over the coming months we’ll see the new Financial Services and Markets Bill making its journey through Government. As the UK moves ever closer to a “less-cash” society, the Government has recognised the importance of access to and the distribution of cash and is seeking to introduce measures that support financial inclusion by ensuring people across the UK can continue to access cash with ease.

These measures to protect access to cash for those who want or need it, are very welcome as long as we also ensure that digital payments are accessible, equitable and inclusive for all in society.

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