The death of the cash machine

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By Rosie Duffield MP

The first ATM in the world opened in Enfield, North London, in 1967. In the more than 50 years since, ATMs have become a part of the fabric of everyday life in the UK. Like bins, or telephone booths, or bus stops, they form part of the low-key infrastructure of Britain’s streets. It is likely that many of us only pay any thought to ATMs when we can’t find one.

But whether we are thinking about them or not, the ways in which we pay for goods and services are changing, and free-to-use ATMs are a victim of this change. ATMs are closing around the country. Coupled with high street bank branch closures, this is causing what some have referred to as “cash deserts”. Far from being king, in many areas and particularly in our rural areas, cash is becoming harder and harder to come by.

This situation is only set to get worse, following the recent announcement that NoteMachine, the 2nd largest provider of ATMs in country, will begin instituting charges on 3000 of its 7000 machines. NoteMachine has said that the change is undesirable, but necessary to keep the company operationally viable. It has also confirmed that four of its machines across Canterbury and Whitstable are set to become pay-to-use as a result.

Naturally, the news that ATMs will be, in ever greater numbers, charging for their service will probably illicit a grumble from many of us.

However, the growth of cash deserts and the slow death of free-to-use ATMs is more than merely an inconvenience for some. Whilst many people today may live largely cashless lives, banking online, using contactless cards or smartphone payment apps – this transition to digital payment is leaving behind many of the poorest in our society. More than 15% of people with an income of 10,000 pounds a year or less operate solely using cash, and figures show that ATMs are closing most quickly in economically disadvantaged areas.

Older people are also less likely to bank or pay their bills online; having already been hit by bank branch closures, the vast increase in charging ATMs will come as another blow. Charges on cash withdrawals at ATMs will compound the difficulties many already face over their financial situation.

There is nothing particularly glamourous about ATMs, no grand political victories to be had highlighting the insidious way in which a reduction in access to cash will compound poverty.

Yet access to cash is a social justice issue; an area of policy that is largely invisible to the policy makers that cannot imagine operating entirely in notes, pounds and pence. The failure by successive governments to take action, as operators like NoteMachine have expressed continual fears for the viability of their free-to-use machines, speaks to the fact that those in charge have no idea what it might mean to be charged when you have only a few pounds left in your account.

Technological progress is to be celebrated, of course, but we also need to keep count of the many ways in which ordinary people may be losing out as a result.

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