Executives at one of Australia’s biggest banks have conceded they have no processes in place to consult affected communities before they decide to shut down branches in small towns.
ANZ general manager Michael Wake and director Tony Tapsall fronted a parliamentary inquiry into regional bank closures on Thursday where they were grilled over the major lender’s decision to shut 56 regional branches over the past two years.
Speaking at the public hearing in the regional Queensland town of Ingham, Mr Wake conceded ANZ didn’t consult with people living in towns where the bank was planning to shut a local branch.
“People on the ground … community members, they’re not informed until after we’ve informed our staff,” he said.
But he insisted the bank made sure to contact customers aged 65 and older to offer them help to switch to online banking or phone banking if their branch was going to close during a 24-week notice period he said the bank adhered to.
However, Mr Wake conceded the bank would lose customers who couldn’t make the switch to internet banking.
And he said he “accepted the point” put to him at the inquiry that some older Australians would be vulnerable to elder abuse as a result of not being able to access in-person services themselves.
Fronting the inquiry a day after ANZ shut down four branches in regional Victoria and rural NSW, Mr Wake said the closure of some branches was unavoidable due to a drastic drop in the number of customers using in-person services.
Eighty-one per cent of the bank’s customers had not visited a branch in the past year, he said.
Mr Wake conceded the Ingham branch was likely to have been profitable in 2018 before it closed but claimed its “profitability” had been in question because of dwindling foot traffic.
He said ANZ used “foot traffic” as one measure of whether or not a branch was viable and in some country towns only 10 customers would walk into the bank each day.
The inquiry, which has previously heard evidence about a lack of community consultation from banks across the board, is responding to the announced closure of more than 90 branches of different banks in regional and remote communities across Australia since September last year.
Nationals MPs and senators led the push for the Senate probe after more than 300 bank branches closed across Australia in the last financial year, with 95 of those in regional areas.
The politicians argue that many people in the regional communities they represent are older people who can’t manage online banking.
Bendigo and Adelaide Bank group also sent representatives to the inquiry in Ingham on Thursday.
The bank’s chief customer officer of consumer banking, Richard Fennell, said he knew there were some customers who would prefer to access services face-to-face.
He said the cost of maintaining a “bricks and mortar” presence was high and meant some branches weren’t viable, even though he insisted Bendigo bank didn’t take closures “lightly”.
Asked about the bank’s consultation process, he said that was done internally first before alerting towns to the fact their local branch was going to close.
Hinchinbrook Shire Council mayor Ramon Jayo told the same public hearing ANZ had called him directly to let him know the Ingham branch was going to close, whereas he’d found out Westpac was closing its Ingham branch on Facebook.
Mr Jayo said people living in his shire had been badly affected by bank closures in terms of their mental health and mobility, given many older residents would be brought into town by their children or friends for their “big outing” of going to the bank and then doing their shopping.
Of the 11,000 people living in the shire, the median age was 55 and the majority of people wouldn’t own a smartphone or know how to use one, he said.