Like telephone boxes, they could become a relic of a bygone age
Are we going to look back in a few decades and regard cash machines much in the same way we look at public phone boxes today – a relic of a bygone age, overtaken by new technology? Will some of us struggle to remember the last time we ever used one?
We were warned this week that at least 10,000 of the 55,000 free-to-use machines in the UK are at risk of closing, victims of a bust-up at the network operator Link, and our shrinking usage of cash as we go contactless.
The big banks don’t like having to shell out so-called “interchange fees” to the independent machine operators that now run tens of thousands of ATMs (both the free-to-use and charging ones) at a time when the amount of cash withdrawn is declining by around 5% a year. The independents warn that if these fees are slashed, it could lead to “ATM deserts” in deprived areas.
Most reports about the death of cash have been somewhat premature. Victoria Cleland, whose name is on all new bank notes (she’s the Bank of England chief cashier), said recently that the value of cash in circulation in the UK is higher than it has ever been. Something like 45% of all transactions are in cash.
Many people will be horrified if they can’t get hold of cash. How will my mum pay her hairdresser who comes to her house? How will my dad pay the gardener who helps out every fortnight? How do you give kids their pocket and school dinner money? And how do you slip something into the church collection box?
Well, quite easily actually. Many schools have gone cashless, with kids holding cards with money topped up from their parents’ accounts. Churches and charities are delighted if you pay by standing order or direct debit. And if the gardener or hairdresser won’t take Apple Pay/PayPal or such like, there are still chequebooks around.
The number of contactless “tap and go” payments we are making are galloping ahead. In June we flashed our cards 469m times, up a remarkable 150% on the same month in 2016, spending £4.3bn. It is reaching every corner of retail and leisure: I paid a £1 coat check fee by contactless the other night.
Yet the number of cash machines in Britain has actually gone up over the past three years, with 5,000 free-to use machines added to the network. Britain is stuffed with the things – we have around 70,000 in total, while France, with a roughly similar population but a much larger land space, gets by with less than 50,000, and Italy has fewer than 40,000. Those foreign ATM numbers are a little old – they’re from 2013 – but you can see the pattern.
There is an argument that banks should provide free-to-use ATMs as a utility service. The same argument was used to make BT maintain telephone boxes.
In any case, the banks have already pledged to maintain an “extensive” network of free-to-use machines “for many years to come”.
Link operates a financial inclusion programme, and has placed free-to-use cash machines in 90% of the 1,700 communities identified by the Treasury select committee and consumer groups in 2016 as lacking access.
Privacy is a thornier issue. Once we go fully cashless – and it’s going to happen a lot faster than other innovations such as driverless cars – everything we spend will be tracked. The data will be spliced, diced, packaged and sold on.
Most young adults care not a jot about how their data is used, but it leaves many others highly uncomfortable. Less of a worry is the tax dodging – high-denomination notes are “the payment mechanism of choice” for criminals and tax avoiders, said one bank boss last year when he called for their abolition, and he’s right.
There are lots of things to tackle the banks on. But losing 10,000 ATMs is not one of them.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010
Lead Image: Overgrown and overtaken by new technology … who will remember telephone boxes? Photograph: Alamy