Westpac will postpone the planned closures of eight of its branches across regional Australia, ahead of a federal Senate inquiry into the economic and social impacts of such closures.
- Westpac’s move to halt regional branch closure follows a similar announcement by the Commonwealth Bank earlier this week
- A federal MP says banks rushing to close regional branches are letting down customers
- Westpac will continue to merge some of its branches, bringing two teams under the one roof
The Commonwealth Bank confirmed earlier this week it would halt closures while the inquiry took place, prompting calls from political leaders for other banks to do the same.
A Westpac spokesman said in a statement that the company was looking forward to working with the inquiry, which was expected to deliver its findings in December.
“Westpac will postpone eight regional branch closures that were announced in February 2023,” he said.
“No further decisions on regional closures will be made while we engage with the inquiry.”
The branches to remain open during the inquiry include the Robinvale and Sale branches in Victoria; Denmark in Western Australia; Gatton, Cloncurry, Ingham and Tully in Queensland; and the BankSA branch in Kingston, South Australia, which is owned by Westpac.
On Wednesday, Nationals Member for Gippsland Darren Chester said banks that were rushing to close their regional branches were letting down customers.
“The main concerns that I hear back from my community are among small and family-sized businesses that want access to face-to-face services,” he said.
“We’re also talking about the more vulnerable people in the community, elderly people, people who might be low income earners or who have poor digital literacy or may come from an Indigenous background.”
Regional bank branches needed daily
Gary Garth, who runs a newsagency with his wife in Traralgon in Victoria’s Gippsland region, said he needed to visit a bank branch every day.
“In what we do, we have to pay out — you’re paying out for Tattslotto wins, so you’ve really got to have the cash,” he said.
Mr Garth still has access to a branch in Traralgon.
But he said wait times had increased as people need to travel from regional areas where branches had closed to access face-to-face services.
“Makes it very difficult for the business people, because I know some people from Morwell and Moe come across to Traralgon,” he said.
“There’s a lot of times where the bank might have one teller on and there’s queues out the door … I’ve been [waiting] 40 minutes at times. It’s hopeless.”
Mr Garth said he wouldn’t know what to do if he had conduct all his business transactions online.
“It’d be very difficult — maybe you’d do a reverse ATM-thing, but gee that’s going to take some time and that’s totally inefficient for the business,” he said.
“It’s about time they [banks] started trying to look after the average person and businesses.”
Mr Chester said hundreds of regional branches had closed in recent years and it was “simply disgraceful” for branches in centres as large as Sale to be shut.
He said banks appeared to be “fast-tracking” closures before new guidelines about shutting branches came into effect.
A report handed down last year by the Coalition-formed Regional Banking Taskforce called on banks to improve communication with locals when closing branches.
But Mr Chester said an official recommendation for banks to conduct impact assessments would not kick in until the middle of this year.
He said more than 80 branches around the country had closed since the taskforce’s report was handed down.
“All the big four banks should put a moratorium in place, no further closures until this Senate inquiry can hear from regional people and look at more innovative solutions rather than simply shutting their doors,” he said.
Westpac said it planned to continue merging some branches, bringing two branches and their customer service teams together into the one building.
“These co-located branches allow us to invest and stay in communities and have been well received by customers in more than 30 locations,” the spokesman said.
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