Co-op pledges to offer free ATMs to tackle ‘cash deserts’

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Co-op has pledged to help disadvantaged areas avoid becoming “cash deserts” by offering free ATMs in every store and cashback opportunities, where possible.

New research into the spending habits of 16 million shoppers shows a north-south divide in the use of cash with many disadvantaged communities relying on notes and coins to budget during the cost-of-living crisis.

The Co-op’s ‘Way we pay’ report reveals that cash use has fallen from 65 percent to 28 percent since 2016. However, in many areas cash payments remain as high as 44 percent, with counties in Northern Ireland, the Northeast, Wales and Scotland topping the list. These areas have also been hit hard by bank closures with half of all banks closing since 2015 and the majority affected by poverty and high unemployment levels, Co-op says.

Despite London topping the list of locations where contactless payments are most common, some boroughs still see one in three shoppers paying by cash. In terms of the areas least dependent on cash, English counites made up 80 percent of the list – with 50 percent of those in the Southeast and 25 percent in the Southwest – where unemployment levels are low. The only northern English county with a reduced reliance on cash is Greater Manchester.

Additional research from Which? featured in the report has shown that those most likely to use cash are people in the lowest income households and it suggests that a third of respondents whose annual income was lower than £20,000 found cash easiest to budget.

To safeguard easy access to cash, which is under threat from high street bank closures, removal of free ATMs and the rise of cashless retailing, Co-op has launched a commitment to protect vital services. The charter sets out to protect the use of cash in stores where customers are dependent on the payment method, to avoid disadvantaging or isolating communities by countering the growing threat of ‘cash deserts.’

Co-op will also offer cash machines which are free to use and retain free to use cash back facilities at stores without ATMs and support community access to cash through banking services provided through its post office counter network and One Banks in-store services

“Insight and data within our latest report indicates that while contactless has become the preferred way for many to pay, cash still remains a key payment method that the public looks to for confidence and security,” Matt Hood, Co-Managing Director of Co-op Food, said.

“As a community-led convenience retailer it’s important to us that while we have the correct technology that offers convenience, we also have the in-store facilities that offer vital services to customers and communities that continue to use cash.

“The clear north south divide highlights the inequality issues that are still apparent in society today, despite the government’s levelling up agenda. By introducing this charter and making these commitments we can continue to protect and provide easy access to cash, particularly in those communities that rely on it most.”

Since 2018, the number of free-to-use ATMs has dropped by more than 12,000– a reduction of almost a quarter, which is set to rise – and nearly half of the UK’s bank branches have closed since 2015.

Co-op has over 2,300 free-to-use ATMs, alongside 230 Post Office counters, across its stores allowing customers easy access to cash and the ability to complete their everyday banking locally and conveniently. Additionally, Co-op has introduced OneBanks concessions in three Scottish communities that are more reliant on cash, allowing customers to access banking services no matter who they bank with.