Every 32 hours a new municipality is left without a bank branch in Spain. During the first three months of the year, 66 towns saw the closure of the only branch they hadthus further expanding the map of deserted areas of bank offices in the Peninsula.
The reduction of the physical network of banks has been a trend in recent years due to the further digitization of the business and the cost savings resulting from the closure of establishments. But in this withdrawal, the most affected areas correspond to the so-called ‘Empty Spain’. Of the 66 municipalities that lost their only office, 38 are located in Castilla y León, 10 in Andalusia, four in La Rioja, Extremadura and Castilla la Mancha, three in Cantabria, two in Asturias and one in Catalonia, according to the latest data from the Bank of Spain.
Thus, Castilla y León, which was already the autonomous community with the highest percentage of municipalities without offices (more than 83%), is once again the most damaged region. Between January and March, nine towns in Zamora and another nine in Salamanca lost their only office. Also seven in Palencia, six in Valladolid, five in León and two in Soria.
It so happens that most of the closures (57) have been conditioned by the merger of Unicaja and Liberbank. And it is that the entity undertook its first section of adjustment of the network in the first months of the year. It must also be taken into account that in some cases the closure of branches does not entail a abandonment of financial services for the clients of those municipalities. And it is that, there are offices that continue operating under the formula of a financial agent. At a formal level, the Bank of Spain does not count the branch in its statistics because it is a self-employed worker.
The banking sector is in full transition from traditional face-to-face service in branches to online service through digital channels. However, in this process of withdrawing offices, groups of elderly and vulnerable people, especially in rural areas, have raised their voices, considering that they are being excluded.
The strategy adopted by banks in recent years is based on closing several small offices located in areas close to each other to open another larger one in which to offer personalized advice. The objective is to direct customers to carry out the simplest operations through digital platforms and to come to the office when they require the help of an expert to contract a more complex product or carry out operations that require advice.
The sector justifies the continuous closure of offices in the greater weight of digital customers and in the decreasing influx of clients in the branches, which makes the establishments unprofitable. Even, financial sources explain, part of the branch network remains open despite generating losses for the bank.
However, in this scenario, a digital divide between younger and older generations and actions as simple as withdrawing money in cash or checking the bank account can become difficult in ‘Empty Spain’.
To alleviate this gap, the banking employers AEB, CECA and Unacc signed a protocol of ten measures to help older and vulnerable customers to overcome the obstacles that the digitization of the sector represents for them. Likewise, it has been created Financial Inclusion Observatory to monitor the measures adopted by entities for the personalized provision of financial services and which should publish its first results in the coming days.