Let me take you to Bellshill. Yes, Bellshill. For the uninitiated, it is a rather splendid, proud, down to earth (all right-it can be pretty rough) town 10 miles to the east of Glasgow and 37 miles to the west of Edinburgh.
And the town where I lived until I was aged 10. And though I have not lived there for 40 years, my affection for the place remains undimmed.
Rather better known alumni of Bellshill include famous sons born in the town including celebrated Manchester United manager Sir Matt Busby, Labour politician Robin Cook, singer Sheena Easton (just a few years ahead of me at school) and my personal favourite, ex-footballer Ally McCoist, leading all time goalscorer for Rangers.
Until this week Bellshill also was notable as a bastion of the Airdrie Savings Bank (ASB) founded in 1835, the UK’s last surviving independent savings bank. The Bellshill branch of the ASB has been a prominent landmark on Bellshill’s Main Street since 1917, just a couple of miles from the head office in the neighbouring town of Airdrie.
My first banking memories as a customer are of the Airdrie. For decades prior to me starting school, it enlisted the help of local schools to encourage every pupil to have a saving account – it even took the bank into schools to carry out banking there.
In the 1930s, ASB expanded its branch network to six units.
At its peak in 2011, the network hit the dizzy heights of eight outlets after a cash injection of £10m from a group of Scottish entrepreneurs who supported the bank's mutual model including Stagecoach founders Ann Gloag and Brian Souter, KwikFit founder Tom Farmer and then Rangers chairman David Murray,
Referencing the recent banking crisis, Souter said at the time of the investment: "Airdrie Savings Bank represents what Scottish banks once stood for – security of funds, a focus on savings and outstanding personal service.
“We believe the mutual principle is fundamental to the integrity of the bank. We are doing this because so many Scots are dismayed at what has happened within the banking sector.”
So the news this week that ASB is to close down after almost 200 years of service is especially sad.
The bank’s trustees concluded that the bank should wound up as a result of changing customer requirements and the increasing cost of regulation. The three remaining branches will close in April and customer deposits will be returned or transferred to other financial institutions. Mortgages and secured loans will be transferred to TSB.
As recently as 2015, when ASB halved its network from 8 to 4, retaining “core branches” in Airdrie, Coatbridge, Falkirk and Bellshill following a strategic review, the bank seemed to have a future.
It streamlined and modernised its back-office processes, modernised its channel delivery by offering online banking and invested in its call centre operation.
But back in Bellshill, the town had four branches in total; the ASB, a Clydesdale and branches of Royal Bank of Scotland and Lloyds’ subsidiary Bank of Scotland.
With a branch density in the UK dropping to around 15 branches per 100,000 adults by 2016 (8,000 branches serving an adult population of 52 million) a town of Bellshill’s size (adult population 16,000) was over-branched with anything over about two branches by current stats.
In a cruel twist, on the same day that ASB announced its planned closure, Clydesdale released plans to shrink its current network of 111 branches in Scotland to 71. As recently as a decade ago, the Clydesdale network in Scotland was around 200 units.
And included in the latest round of Clydesdale closures is the Bellshill branch, just a few steps down the main street from the ASB.
Only five years ago, there were almost 500 million customer transactions per year in UK bank branches; last year that number had collapsed by half to little over 250 million.
The average UK branch now sees less than 70 customers a day. When the UK banks finally get around to offering remote cheque deposit by mobile phone, that number will drop even further.
Until recently, it was said that towns of less than 10,000 adults in the UK would struggle to justify a bank branch; that 10,000 figure may soon have to be revised upwards.
Increasingly, it looks as if no UK bank need have a network of more than 500-600 outlets, about the current size of the networks operated by TSB and Nationwide.
That means that we might expect to see about 3,000 existing branches operated by the big 5 banks shuttered in the medium term.
In fact something around 5,000 branches across the UK, down from the current 8,000 units looks a fair guestimate.
But few of the currently open branches inevitably set to close will enjoy quite the proud history of local service of the UK’s last surviving independent savings bank.
RIP the Airdrie.