An ATM network boss has said the supply of cash should become a regulated utility such as water, saying charges for people withdrawing their money are “unacceptable”.

Speaking at a meeting of Holyrood’s Economy, Energy and Fair Work Committee on Tuesday, Adrian Roberts, the chief commercial officer for Link, called for action to ensure people are not charged for taking out their own cash describing it as a "universal need".

It comes after the Herald revealed ministers have refused to intervene in the access-to-cash crisis – as it has emerged that around 10 free-to-use ATMs in Scotland have continued to shut down every week in the last year.

Meanwhile, more than one-third of Scotland's bank branches have closed between January 2015 and August this year. Some 396 have vanished, leaving the nation with 643.

NoteMachine UK CEO Peter McNamara said the combination of bank closures and the removal of ATMs across Scotland meant the country was “sleepwalking into a cash disaster”.

READ MORE: The free cash machine scandal - how ATM loss is affecting your area

In recent years, Link – which oversees the majority of the ATMs in the British network – has reduced its “interchange fee”, a payment made by banks to the individual operators of each machine when money is taken out by one of their clients.

The reduction has resulted in an increase in the number of ATMs that charge a fee – usually between 50p and £1.99.

Mr McNamara said: "I Strongly we believe that cash supply has to become a type of regulated utility if it is going to be on a free basis, which it should be.

HeraldScotland:

"The present mechanism doesn't work. It had worked previously quite well, but now it has been largely destroyed, and the network is not capable of being replaced once it has gone. The cost of putting it back in place is huge, and the rate of decline we are seeing over the last 12 months will accelerate as contracts come to an end.

"To be very blunt it is sleepwalking into a bit of a disaster over the absence of cash and I am afraid to say Scotland is leading the way by losing more than anywhere else, as it lost more bank branches than anywhere else.

"There needs to be some mechanism which currently isn't being looked at to guarantee this supply of cash, otherwise the infrastructure won't exist."

Ten years ago, cash accounted for more than six out of 10 payments in the UK but, according to the banking industry body UK Finance, it is anticipated to fall to fewer than one in 10 by 2028. In 2017, debit cards overtook cash for the first time as the most frequently used payment method in the UK.

But Mr McNamara said:"People talk about the demand for cash falling. That's a bit like saying the demand for bread is falling, when you have closed all the bakeries."

He added that the most common amount taken out of ATMs was close to £20, which he believes is due to “poorer” people using cash as an easier way to budget finances than using their debit cards.

“The absence of these ATMs is removing economic activity from where they’re situated and putting it somewhere else,” Mr McNamara said.

SNP MSP Gordon MacDonald asked the panel if it was acceptable that people in a deprived area of his Edinburgh Pentland constituency were having to pay to take out their own money.

READ MORE: The South Lanarkshire town that was left with no banks

Mr Roberts replied: “No, I don’t think that’s acceptable. I don’t think it’s acceptable that anyone should have to pay to access their own cash.

“That’s the point I wanted to make earlier, it’s about giving consumers choice.”

Mr Roberts asked that Mr MacDonald share more about the case so his company can look into details of the cash provision and potentially take action.

He added: “Perhaps Link should look into that as part of our community request scheme and potentially put one in because it’s absolutely not acceptable that people are having to pay to access their own cash.”

Earlier in the meeting, during a discussion between business bodies, the head of payment policy at the British Retail Consortium Andrew Cregan described the inability to access cash in rural or deprived communities as a “social justice issue”.

Data produced exclusively for The Herald by the consumer organisation Which? last month revealed that despite concerns about the disappearance of hundreds of bank branches and free-to-use cash machines in Scotland, the rate of decline has accelerated.

The number of free-to-use ATMs has fallen below the 5000 mark in Scotland for the first time.

In July, there were 4767 free-to-use cashpoints – 516 fewer than in July 2018, meaning 43 are disappearing every month.

Some 85% (426) of the losses have occurred in the last six months – at a rate of 71 a month.

Parliamentary constituency areas of Scotland worst hit in the year are Glasgow North, which has seen nearly one in four of its 88 free ATMS go, and Glasgow North West, where there has been a 22% drop from 82 last year to 64 now. It has seen one in five cashpoints axed in the last six months alone.