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Hounslow thriving due to ten bank branches


Bank branches are shutting down across the country, turning high streets into ghost towns and forcing residents to travel miles to access cash. But not in Hounslow. Here, there are ten bank branches within a five-minute walk – the lifeblood of a thriving high street. 

Banks claim branches are increasingly redundant as they direct their customers towards their websites, apps and telephone services instead. But the queues outside Hounslow’s ten branches – and the experiences of customers such as Ted Marshall – reveal what is lost when face-to-face contact is snatched away. 

When Ted turned 80 last year, he bought a birthday cake decorated with edible petals and blue icing – and took it down to the staff at the Lloyds Bank in this town in West London. ‘I’ve banked with Lloyds since 1959 and I’ve known the staff at this bank for years,’ says Ted. ‘They are like a family to me – they always ask how I am and make me feel welcome.’ 

Care: Hounslow Metro Bank manager Philippa Webb even makes trips to customers¿ homes if they are shielding

Care: Hounslow Metro Bank manager Philippa Webb even makes trips to customers’ homes if they are shielding

Ted visits the branch every Friday after church to check his balances and withdraw cash for his weekend shopping. ‘He always comes in at the same time so if he’s running late we get worried,’ says bank manager Salma Khatun. 

The Lloyds branch is bustling all day long – it carries out around 1,000 transactions a day. But it’s not just Ted who gets the special treatment. ‘Most customers are greeted by name,’ says Salma. ‘We are able to offer the personal touch. We can educate customers – help them into better savings habits, for example, or explain how to improve their credit rating. 

‘If someone comes in with financial difficulties, we take time to understand their situation to look at what support is available. If we weren’t here it would be easier for them to turn to a loan shark or do an internet search and apply for the first loan available without reading the terms and conditions.’ 

The Lloyds staff have to be at the top of their game because there are nine competitors within 500 yards. 

Bank branches are closing in their droves across the UK. As many as a third have closed in the past six years alone, according to consumer group Which?. But in Hounslow, all the major banks have a presence. 

Although the area has been hit by the drop in flights out of nearby Heathrow – and footfall is down slightly due to Covid-19 – the high street here is thriving. 

A busker serenades shoppers with his electric violin, tables spill out of sandwich shops on to the pedestrianised street and clothes shops have bouncers outside to ensure the number of shoppers doesn’t exceed safe levels for social distancing. Banks are the glue holding it all together. Queues form outside all ten throughout the day, with businesses dropping off their takings, locals opening current accounts and families checking on jewellery stored in safety deposit boxes. 

‘Having so many bank branches has a direct knock-on effect on the high street,’ says Sally Smith, of Hounslow Chamber of Commerce. ‘People come to the bank and then have a coffee or impulse buy a nice top in Primark.’ 

Each branch has ATM machines – and there is even an extra one outside the Argos. Archie Congerton, 19, who runs a fruit stall outside the shopping centre, says it keeps him in business. ‘We only accept cash. If there weren’t banks and ATMs so people could get cash, it would kill us,’ he says. ‘I’m always going in to NatWest to drop off cash – we get on really well with the staff there.’ 

The high street is also drawing in shoppers from further afield as bank branches close in the surrounding area. 

Marina Nguyan, 55, a financial adviser, has been driving to Barclays in Hounslow from her home in Sunbury ever since her local branch closed in May. ‘I come for the bank, then go to Debenhams, make a bit of a trip of it,’ she says. Sunbury’s loss is Hounslow’s gain. Likewise, Mohammed Miyanji has started coming to Hounslow after his local Whitton branch cut its opening hours. It’s closing for good on October 22. ‘I’ll have something to eat while I’m in Hounslow and browse the shops,’ he says. 

Boosting business: Archie Congerton, 19, runs a fruit stall outside the shopping centre

Boosting business: Archie Congerton, 19, runs a fruit stall outside the shopping centre

As they ruthlessly close branches elsewhere, banks argue that most banking can now be done online. 

For example, in its explanation to Whitton branch customers about why it is shutting their branch, Barclays says 84 per cent of them now use other ways to do their banking such as online and by telephone. 

Yet the popularity of in-branch services in Hounslow suggests there is still much about face-to-face interactions that is impossible to replicate. The Metro Bank branch was open throughout lockdown and did not turn one customer away. Manager Philippa Webb, 26, says: ‘You can bank online, but a lot of our customers are elderly and don’t trust online. They would rather sit down with an adviser who they know is looking after them.’ 

Philippa has been carrying out home visits to customers who are shielding and cannot make it in to carry out transactions.

‘We can verify documents at the door or even through the window. Because we already have a relationship with customers from when they have visited the branch in the past, it makes the process less daunting for them.’ 

Metro Bank likes to be part of its customers’ lives. Staff regularly sneak out to buy a customer a good luck card if they find they have a job interview, or a box of chocolates if an unemployed customer gets a new job. ‘Our customer Mr Patel brought in samosas for us on Friday because he knows he shares his birthday with assistant manager Lohit,’ says Philippa. 

During lockdown, NatWest encouraged its customers to stay at home unless absolutely necessary, but the habit was just too strong for some. ‘We told customers to phone us for help. We could even get cash delivered if they needed it,’ says personal banker Maryam Majid. ‘But people wanted to come in and talk.’ Meanwhile at Santander, branch staff phoned 250 customers who regularly visit the branch, but couldn’t due to lockdown. The bank’s regional manager for South West London, Kris Anderton, says: ‘The majority of these colleagues knew their customers on a first-name basis because they see them in branch most weeks. Having that existing connection helped them to feel at ease.

‘Some customers had recently lost a loved one, or had not had much interaction for days – that 15-minute conversation made all the difference.’ 

All of the branch staff live in the community so they magnify the impact the bank can have. 

When Santander had to reduce its opening hours, many staff members used the time to fundraise or cook at the local mosque and church. They have also been fundraising for charities and collecting in branch for the local food bank. ‘Some of the customers we phoned were struggling with basic essentials as they were unable to get out and get food,’ says Kris. ‘We were able to work with local support services to help them.’ 

The sheer number of branches keeps all the banks on their toes. I struggle to find one customer who doesn’t like their branch and doesn’t feel they know the staff. If they’re not happy with the service they receive, customers can simply go elsewhere. 

Kasia Tarnopolsa, 27, works at Little Munchkins nursery. She banks online but prefers to do some transactions in person. ‘I know the staff at Lloyds and they know me,’ she says. ‘But if it closed down, I’d switch to one of the other banks in an instant.’ 

Bustling: Lloyds bank manager Salma Khatun (right) and her colleague Manjula Sood

Bustling: Lloyds bank manager Salma Khatun (right) and her colleague Manjula Sood

CUSTOMERS AND STAFF GO ON TO SPEND IN THE SHOPS 

By your side – that is Lloyds Bank’s longstanding slogan and pledge to its customers. A worthy sentiment, no doubt, but in an age of websites and apps, it’s hard not to feel like it rings a little hollow. 

What or who exactly is by our side nowadays? An ‘online virtual assistant’ chatbot? An anonymous call centre representative? A ‘self-service tool’ on a mobile phone banking app? 

My cynicism evaporated the moment I met Manjula Sood, 53, in the bank’s Hounslow branch last week. Manjula has worked at the branch for 30 years and counting. She has supported her customers through every life stage. Literally by their side. Manjula teaches customers how to bank online if they want. Because customers trust her, when Manjula tells them they should come back to her with any queries, they know she means it – and pop back in to see her rather than take any chances with things they don’t fully understand. 

Manjula and most of the bank branch staff in Hounslow are part of the community. They live in the area and use the local businesses. 

Her manager, Salma, is greeted with five or six ‘hellos’ from customers every time she pops out to get a sandwich. Down the road, Metro Bank’s business customers know they can come in for a cup of tea and a chat with the business manager whenever they like. 

During lockdown, Santander staff in Hounslow fundraised for local charities, cooked at the local church and mosque and collected for the local foodbank. 

Yet while it was wonderful to see how Hounslow’s many bank branches are supporting the community, my visit was tinged with sadness. Elsewhere banks are shutting branches at an alarming rate and leaving entire communities cut off. They claim the popularity of online banking means physical premises are no longer needed. 

Online banking can work perfectly if you know exactly what you want: you can apply for a loan if you need more cash or find a mortgage if your existing one is coming to an end. 

But there are millions of people who, when it comes to managing their life savings or buying a home, feel more comfortable dealing with a human being than a chatbot or a faceless stranger in a call centre.

It is only by seeing what is gained when bank branches abound that the loss when banks move out becomes crystal clear. 

As Salma at Lloyds in Hounslow can attest, the truth is not everyone comes in knowing what questions to ask or has a solution in mind to rectify their financial situation. 

When a customer feels comfortable enough to confide debt problems, branch staff can help come up with solutions such as payment holidays on loans or mortgages, drawing up better budgets or improving their credit score. It’s not always easy for people to open up if they are struggling and talking to someone you already know and trust can make all the difference. 

To prove her point, Salma told me of a visit by a customer well known to Lloyds staff. The man said his income had dried up in the pandemic. So banking consultant Sebastian looked at the interest rates the customer was paying – but also researched the local foodbank for him. 

By your side, through the rockiest patches. There’s still no app or chatbot that can do that.

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