Living in a town of 14,000 people, it’s painful to watch the decline of its ancient, characterful, High Street due to the impact of the modern online world. This week it was announced that the town’s last bank branch will close later in 2021. There were 6 major banks on the town’s High Street in 2015, all of which had occupied historic buildings for decades. In a few months there’ll be none and all the old buildings that housed them will be empty. The nearest bank branch will be 10 miles away, the town will have just 2 ATMs, and the local Post Office will be the only place providing basic banking services. Apart from its empty premises, the High Street is already dominated by more coffee shops, eateries, hairdressers, and estate agents than appears sustainable. This is the same in many towns because the world has become online-first and our behaviour has changed.
The COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated the adoption of online-first for everything. The use of physical money – cash – for in-store purchases halved in 2020 and the downward trend is unlikely to change. As cash disappears, we’ll soon see people rattling charity tins for donations, tip jars on the counters of coffee shops, collection plates at church services, and funfair slot machines all disappear too. Banks can’t be blamed for behaving like the businesses they are, or for adapting to the needs and expectations of their digital-native customers, especially those born since the 1980s, but the closure of physical branches does impact on society, as outlined by the parliamentary report here. The High Street’s decline isn’t the fault of the banks, it’s a consequence of the internet, relentless progress in digital technology, and our own behaviour. The decline comes with a sting in the tail for completely digital-native generations as they get older, because the concept of local community is eroding and being replaced by the personal isolation that comes with total dependence on the online world.
A society that’s online dependent for everything isn’t free of risk. The pandemic illustrates just how disruptive a biological virus can be, so just think how troublesome a future global cyber equivalent – deliberate or accidental – could be if you can’t access your money or do anything online. It’ll never happen, you say. Never say never, especially when 20 years ago people worried about a ‘millennium bug’, 10 years ago there was a global banking crisis, and recent cyber incidents have caused chaos with fuel pipelines and forced store closures. If a cyber-space catastrophe happened, there’ll be no point meeting anyone for coffee in the High Street, because the High Street won’t exist and there’ll be no means to pay for the coffee. It won’t be the fault of banks; it will just be the manifestation of one of the current risks in modern life that we don’t seem to think too much about.