08 May 2024


Australian Small Business and Family Enterprise Ombudsman Bruce Billson interview with Isla Evans.

ABC Radio South East NSW


Subject: Regional bank branch closures



The Bega ANZ branch has announced that it will actually close its doors in October. When asked about this decision, ANZ has told the ABC that only about 1% of all transactions are done over the counter these days. So, if you do bank with ANZ in Bega, your closest branch come the 23rd of October will be in Batemans Bay. So where does that leave the community? The Australian Small Business and Family Enterprise Ombudsman, Bruce Billson has told reporter Isla Evans that this latest closure in Bega is just one part of a concerning trend.

Bruce Billson

We've seen 218 bank branches closed, over 500 ATMs removed, in just the last two years alone and the banks tend to point to an increase in online transactions and argue that this is reflecting a consumer choice. I'm not entirely persuaded by that. I mean, those day-to-day banking transactions aren't the only thing that the customer has as their relationship with their bank.

For small family businesses operating in these areas they have cash receiving and in some cases to provide change for their customers. The banking relationship can be far deeper than day to day transactions.

Isla Evans

In this circumstance, these people will now have to travel two hours to Batemans Bay for an in-person service. What are the impacts on the community as a whole when something like that happens?

Bruce Billson

Well, it's beyond the inconvenience. Obviously, the inconvenience is very evident for people that find that four-hour round trip to have a face-to-face meeting with a service provider that they joined on the assumption that there'd be certain goods and services, certain relationships, certain access to professional banking staff as part of that relationship. To see that just pulled away is very unsettling for those businesses. It can have an enormous impact on the vitality of those town centres. People coming to their bank branches is foot traffic. Other customers can benefit from it.

But also, if you're a business that's handling cash, you then got the additional challenges of, well, how do I make sure I've got the cash on hand to meet the requirements of my customers? And if people are paying me, I don't want to be hanging on to large amounts of cash for an extended period of time simply because there's nowhere to deposit it.

Beyond that, if you're a dairy producer in Bega, you're thinking about re-equipping your facilities to improve milk production and efficiency in the business, it could involve a significant financing decision. You want to talk to someone that knows about your business, about the region, and can talk you through that important commitment you're about to make. 

Now, how do you do that when there's no point of contact in your community? And these are the concerns that we keep raising. Those 218 branches in regional Australia, they are really the epicentre of some of the commercial activity in those towns. You take that away and other service providers then wonder whether they should be a part of it. Before you know it, the vitality and the richness of living in that community and engaging in the local economy is diminished because of a unilateral decision to close a branch. 

Isla Evans

Naturally, ANZ is not a small business. You operate in the realm of small businesses. However, these branches work within their towns and work mostly within their towns and have staff that work and live in these towns as say, you know, a local business would.

Bruce Billson

There is a very human dimension to this. The staff themselves that are staffing those branches find themselves out of work. They might be career bankers. They've been a part of that big business for a long period of time and now have to contemplate what's next.

The thing that frustrates me, though, is the banks clearly understand that this is a matter of great concern and sensitivity to local communities. They've developed a code around bank closures. Now that code basically says, we’ll tell you when we're going to close one! Now, that's not legitimate consultation. That's not a respectful way of engaging with those communities.

I think the banks should signal that it's their intention to close and then allow the local customers and the community to consider what steps they might possibly be able to take. Those businesses that have entered into a commercial relationship with the bank to be their banker expect certain levels of access to business bankers, to certain services that were part of that relationship. The decision to unilaterally take that away with no capacity for local communities to maybe change their behaviour, change their banking relationships, consider the implications for the staff and the local economy. I think that is a major concern. 


Bruce Billson, the Australian Small Business and Family Enterprise Ombudsman, speaking with ABC South East reporter Isla Evans.