WHILE Royal Bank of Scotland has rightly attracted a huge amount of flak from politicians, small businesses and the public over its sweeping branch-closure programme, chief executive Ross McEwan has never shown any much sign of having second thoughts.

For years now, Mr McEwan has made no bones about his appetite for investing in online banking technology, particularly his institution’s mobile phone application (app).

All the while, the bank has been closing branches at a stomach-churning pace, part of a wider cost-cutting programme which has led to many thousands of job losses.

The argument from Mr McEwan and other top brass in the UK banking sector seems to be that the times they are a changin’, and this is just the way it is going to be.

One particularly irritating aspect of such an attitude from some of the big banks is that they appear determined to tell customers how they should transact. Royal Bank has even waxed lyrical about educating customers in digital banking, as if they are staff to be trained.

Whatever happened to the notion of ‘the customer is always right’? It appears this tenet has little, if any, appeal for big bank bosses when it comes to branch closures.

It may be the seemingly once-again-watchful eyes of politicians will help stem the tide. Politicians had seemed for a while to take their eye off the huge branch closures which were occurring but are thankfully holding banks to account on this front again, as highlighted by a recent Scottish Affairs Committee hearing at Westminster on Royal Bank’s programme featuring Mr McEwan.

Furthermore, while some of the big banks do not appear to want to hear complaints from personal and business customers about branch closures, they might have to sit up and take greater notice if people start voting with their feet.

In this regard, a survey of the Scottish public’s thoughts on bank branches, published last week by market researcher Kantar TNS UK, provided some encouragement.

It found that more than one in five Scottish customers would change their banking provider if their local branch closed.

Kantar TNS declared: “With over half of main personal current accounts in Scotland held by three banks – Bank of Scotland (22%), Royal Bank of Scotland (19%) and TSB (13%) – the raft of closures announced across Scotland could have a significant impact on customer numbers.”

All three of these big current account players have been closing branches north of the Border.

Kantar TNS concluded its survey of 1,102 Scottish adults, aged 16 and above, demonstrated that the value of having a local bank branch “remains clear, even as online and mobile banking become increasingly popular”.

Mr McEwan has, in recent times, been making much of his view that post offices could be just the place for Royal Bank customers to go for their transactions in areas in which his institution is closing branches. He even told the Scottish Affairs Committee about how Royal Bank staff had been escorting customers to nearby post offices in such areas to show them how this can be done.

But the Kantar TNS survey might not make particularly encouraging reading for him on this front.

It found the proportion of people who believed they would switch banks in the event of a local branch closure was more than double the percentage of customers saying they would use post office banking facilities in such a scenario.

Asked what they would do in the event of a branch closure, 44% of people said they would opt to manage their accounts using their existing online services, with 19% preferring to do their banking through their mobile phones.

However, 21% of customers said they would switch provider altogether. Kantar TNS highlighted the fact that this is considerably more than the 9% declaring they would use post office banking facilities or the 7% saying they would go to a mobile “branch”.

Royal Bank announced late last year that it would close 62 Scottish branches – significantly in excess of one-third of its network of more than 150 north of the Border. It had about 300 branches in Scotland only about five years ago.

In February, Royal, in the face of fierce protest, granted a temporary reprieve to 10 of the 62 branches.

However, Mr McEwan was giving no assurances over these branches when he appeared before the Scottish Affairs Committee last month.

The Federation of Small Businesses has led a commendable campaign to warn of the impact of branch closures on its members.

And it is easy to understand the exasperation of the many Scottish businesses which need to bank cash and face the prospect of no longer having a branch to go to for this simple, but absolutely crucial, requirement.

Mr McEwan, and some of his peers in the sector, seem at pains to highlight declining branch use. You could be forgiven for thinking, given their seemingly starkly contrasting levels of enthusiasm for “apps” and bricks-and-mortar, that hardly any people use branches any more. That going into a branch is somehow just so old hat.

The Royal Bank chief might also want to take note of the Kantar TNS survey’s finding that having access to face-to-face financial advice is more important to younger consumers. Presumably including some who do most things on their mobile phones. Three-quarters of 16 to 34 -year-olds named this as a priority, a significantly greater proportion than the nevertheless very substantial 63% of over-55s declaring such a view.

And, highlighting the fact that 37% of bank customers in Scotland use their local branch at least once a month, Kantar TNS director Jim Ecclestone declared: “It’s clear to see why there’s been such a furore over the proposed closures.”

Meanwhile, 83% of respondents said it was important that their bank provided a branch they could

visit easily. And more than half use a branch to access their main current account.

Mr Ecclestone declared: “The rate of account switching stood at 11% last year, but our research suggests this could almost double among those faced with their bank [branch] closing.”

It is high time some of the big banks stopped digging their heels in and listened to their customers on branches.

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Social responsibility to communities, and a requirement to allow customers to do their banking in the way they want, are the key considerations here.

However, the Kantar TNS survey also signals that having branches might just make sound commercial sense for banks. Imagine that!