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Marketing Executive Adele Rudenko visits the Cotswolds
It’s safe to say that for many UK cities, their cashless journeys are well and truly underway. In London, passengers are no longer able to use cash when traveling on buses and according to LINK, the capital saw the greatest regional fall in ATM withdrawals during the first three months of 2019. Similarly, Bristol has been revealed as the UK capital of contactless card payments, with Paymentsense even suggesting that it could become the country’s first cashless city. However, while we tend to hear a lot about the shifts in payment methods throughout our cities, how does cash fare in the countryside?
Less than 10 miles north of Oxford lies Woodstock, a charming market town perhaps best known for being a stone’s throw away from UNESCO World Heritage Site Blenheim Palace, birthplace of Sir Winston Churchill.
In mid-November, I arrived in Woodstock for a family birthday celebration and decided to make a weekend of it. We stayed in a fantastic ‘olde-worlde’ hotel on the high street and made use of the restaurant and bar facilities that night. The following morning, we ventured out into what can only be described as a quintessential Cotswold town, with Georgian houses and independent shops lining the high street. Once we had cleared our heads with a wander around Blenheim Park, we’d built up an appetite and made a pit stop in one of the local bakeries, lured in by the smell of freshly baked goods.
It was here that I noticed the “we are going cashless” sign displayed at the counter. When I questioned the reasoning behind this, staff stated that the business had already gone cashless, as “it is the way that the world is moving,” and there were very few banks in the area.
In fact, there are no banks in Woodstock. When its NatWest branch closed in 2014, residents feared that the cutback in banking services would reduce footfall brought in by tourism and members from surrounding villages. Despite voicing these concerns, November of 2017 saw Barclays shutter the last remaining bank in town, with the company reporting that only 71 regular customers exclusively used the branch. Residents must now travel 5 miles to neighboring town Kidlington to visit a physical bank branch and to make matters worse, Woodstock has just one. It is hard to understand how a town that relies so heavily on tourism – visitor expenditure at Blenheim Palace reached £35.9m in 2018/19 – has such poor access to cash.
Unfortunately, the closure of bank branches and cash machines is not limited to Woodstock. In November, consumer watchdog Which? identified hundreds of ‘ATM deserts’ in the UK, where over 130 postcode districts were found to have no cash machines; many areas have even had to request a free-to-use ATM under LINK’s financial inclusion initiative.
A 2018 ‘Access to Cash’ survey identified that 17% of the UK population believe they would struggle to cope in a cashless society - over 2 million people still use cash for day-to-day transactions – and this issue is particularly prevalent for rural communities. For example, these areas typically have higher proportions of older and more vulnerable residents who rely more heavily on cash. There is also a significant disparity in broadband speed and mobile connectivity between rural and urban communities, creating barriers for those in rural areas to make digital payments and access online banking services.
In these areas, the effects are also being felt by local businesses. A 2016 study by the Federation of Small Businesses (FSB) found that as a consequence of branch closures, 6% of small businesses in Somerset and Wiltshire are spending up to 2 hours of the day traveling to and from the bank. This has resulted in many local firms opting to hold cash on-site for extended periods to minimize costs, which raises questions of security.
The Struggle to Cashless
While the bakery that I visited appeared to have taken measures to address these issues with the owner’s decision to go cashless, what will become of those businesses that do not have the infrastructure in place to make this level of change? And which consumers will eventually be left unable to access local services? Despite this being one small market town, I believe that Woodstock encapsulates the shift – and most notably, the struggle – towards a cashless society that is happening beyond the cities and across the UK countryside.