The Committee was reminded that the Council, at its meeting on 1st April, had passed the following motion, which had been proposed by Councillor McAteer and seconded by Councillor Gormley:
· notes the plans announced by Bank of Ireland to close 103 branches across the island of Ireland, including three in South Belfast;
· notes the expectation set by the Financial Conduct Authority that banks should assess customer needs and consider the availability and provision of alternative arrangements where closures are planned;
· notes the concern expressed by the Financial Conduct Authority that it may be more difficult than usual to reach all customers under the current restrictions and engage with them on closure proposals effectively;
· supports the call from the Financial Services Union that there should be no closures of branches during the pandemic and its call for a moratorium on closures until the end of 2022; and
· agrees to write to the CEO of Bank of Ireland to call for such a moratorium.”
The City Solicitor informed the Members that a response to the motion had been received from Mr. I. Sheppard, Managing Director, Bank of Ireland Northern Ireland.
Mr. Sheppard stated that he understood the concerns which had been expressed around the proposed branch closures and stressed that the decision had not been taken lightly. He explained that Bank of Ireland had undertaken a thorough analysis of its services, including branch usage, the growth in online banking and the range of services which it could offer through the Post Office network, and had highlighted the fact that 52% of counter services provided to Bank of Ireland customers in Northern Ireland were already carried out at a local Post Office.
He pointed out that the trend towards digital banking had been evident for more than a decade and had been accelerating since 2017. Given the clear changes being seen in customer behaviour, Bank of Ireland was not, therefore, in a position to change its approach in relation to branch closures.
He explained that the bank was committed to ensuring that customers were fully informed of the alternative arrangements available to them and highlighted mobile, on line and telephone banking services, and the option to use remaining Bank of Ireland branches and the Post Office. Full details of these arrangements were contained in a letter and a branch impact analysis which had been sent to customers of those branches in Belfast which had been identified for closure. The branch impact analysis documents had also been published on the bank’s website.
Mr. Sheppard referred to the fact that Bank of Ireland customers could, at their local Post Office, make lodgements of cash and cheques, withdraw cash and make balance enquiries. Business customers would, later this year, also be able to use nominated Post Office outlets to access enhanced services, such as cheque encashment, bulk cash lodgements and obtaining pre-ordered coinage. The bank would again be writing to its customers before and after each branch closed. In addition, branch teams would be making proactive calls to those customers who may need additional support and would meet with them in branch, if required.
He added that Bank of Ireland was engaging fully with its Regulators on the closure of the branches, including the communication of its decision analysis, its consideration of the impact of the closures on customers and businesses and the alternative arrangement which had, or would be, put in place. In line with guidance, it had also considered the impact on customers of the closure dates, should lockdown measures be in place at that time.
He stressed that Bank of Ireland was committed to Belfast and that the outcome of the strategic review of its business had underlined its commitment to providing financial services in Northern Ireland in the long term. However, it needed to restructure its business to respond to the significant and accelerating changes in customers’ banking requirements. It was, therefore, focusing on a smaller, better equipped branch network and investing in technology improvements, which would mean that it could continue to play a strong role in Northern Ireland for the years to come.
Mr. Sheppard had concluded by pointing out that Bank of Ireland would be investing in its remaining branches and technology in order to improve customer service across its business. It was also relocating its Head Office from London to Belfast, which again underlined its long term commitment and would, in time, provide employment opportunities by securing talent from local Universities, apprenticeship schemes and the wider community, which had recognisable banking expertise.
The Members of the Committee agreed to recommend that, in accordance with the Council decision of 4th May, the Chief Executive exercise her delegated authority to note the response.