'Millions still need cash': UK project aims to preserve use of physical currency

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Ampthill in Bedfordshire is one of the sites for the Community Access to Cash Pilots scheme




John Cooke: ‘Our takings at the minute are 100% cash.’Photograph: Graeme Robertson/The Guardian

Allison Taylor had a cash-only policy when she first opened the Pastiche gift shop on Ampthill’s high street 26 years ago, but the steady loss of ATMs and bank branches have made it harder to keep coins and notes flowing through the Bedfordshire town. “We had plenty of cashpoints, including across the road, and now things have changed,” she said, gesturing toward the boarded-up building opposite that had housed the town’s final NatWest bank branch. Its closure three years ago resulted in a drop in the number of people coming into town to do their banking and fewer customers for the many independent shops in Ampthill, which is the hub for about 15,000 people including nearby villages.


'Millions still need cash': UK project aims to preserve use of physical currency

Allison Taylor, a gift shop worker in Ampthill.

Photograph: Graeme Robertson/The Guardian

That is just one of the reasons the market town is one of eight communities chosen for a national pilot project intended to preserve the use of cash across the UK Natalie Ceeney, the chair of the Community Access to Cash Pilots, says the UK’s cash infrastructure was built for a “high cash age” that justified expensive bank branches and ATMs. But cash use has fallen rapidly over the past decade.

According to UK Finance, more than 7 million people used cash only once a month or not at all last year, and fewer than a quarter of payments were made with cash in 2019, compared with 58% in 2009. The independently run scheme is being funded by UK banks, including those that recently closed in Ampthill, and will test whether home cash deliveries, special deposit ATMs, or retailer cashback programmes might solve the problem. Covid-19 is turbocharging the shift to digital payments.

Cash withdrawals tumbled 60% year-on-year in April. Much of that downturn was related to lockdown, but there are many shops and shoppers who now prefer not to handle physical money because of the potential health risks. Accenture predicts cash use in the UK will fall nearly 40% over 2020, faster than the 30% average for Europe.

Ceeney says the cash infrastructure that was “effectively collapsing” before the pandemic now faces an immediate threat. “The big worry I had, and still have, is how much strain this is going to put on the remainder of our cash structure because this won’t bounce fully back,” she said. She says there are elderly or vulnerable people who cannot use the internet, afford broadband for online banking or open bank accounts, and who are at risk of being left behind. “There are still millions of people who need cash,” she said. Each of the eight communities taking part in the pilot scheme will hold focus groups over the next two weeks to choose the best fix for their areas, which organisers hope can then be scaled up across the country.


Ian Titman, mayor of Ampthill: ‘Getting another ATM would be nice.’ Photograph: Graeme Robertson/The Guardian

Ampthill’s mayor, Ian Titman, who lodged the town’s application, is hoping for a local banking hub where specially trained staff can service customers no matter where they hold their bank account. “That would be ideal, but getting another ATM would be nice,” he said.

Titman has the town’s businesses – 70% of which are independent – and its cash-friendly ageing population in mind. Roughly 23% of the population is over 65, which is higher than the national average of about 18%. Ampthill is also in a part of mid-Bedfordshire the government has targeted for extensive new home building.

The mayor says Ampthill launched a big campaign to try to keep the NatWest branch open in 2017, which involved signing petitions and sending council delegates to lobby parliament on the issue. When that failed, Ampthill tried to court rival banks such as Nationwide, but to no avail. The town’s entire population now relies on the post office and a single ATM outside Waitrose that often runs out of cash.

That can be a problem for residents enjoying the pubs and restaurants that make up Ampthill’s “thriving nightlife”, Titman said, proudly adding that no pub has permanently closed since 1968. The rapid demise of cash is proving a problem for John Cooke, who makes a round trip of nearly 300 miles from Lowestoft to bring Loni’s fish truck to Ampthill’s 800-year-old market on Thursdays. “Our takings at the minute are 100% cash,” he said. “Hopefully at the end of the month we should have a card machine.”


'Millions still need cash': UK project aims to preserve use of physical currency

Sarah Hammond: ‘The other week neither [the post office or ATM] were giving cash.] Photograph: Graeme Robertson/The Guardian

Lifelong Ampthill resident Sarah Hammond, 44, works on the nearby Priestley Farm vegetable stall and accepts both cash and cards, which was particularly useful recently when shoppers in the town couldn’t access cash because both the post office and ATM systems had gone down. “The other week, neither of them were giving cash,” she said. “So the other stallholders were struggling.”


'Millions still need cash': UK project aims to preserve use of physical currency

Amber Smith and Claire Woodcraft from Ugly Ducklings Cosmetics. Photograph: Graeme Robertson/The Guardian

At least one local Ampthill business owner – Amber Smith, 27, who runs Ugly Duckling Cosmetics – says she is flirting with the idea of ditching cash altogether, but Ceeney says shifting to digital-only payments throws up additional risks.

She said: “There are some national questions that have to be asked before we just become cashless, such as: do we have a resilient enough digital infrastructure? What is the cyber threat to our economy? What if, frankly, the power went down and we couldn’t function?

And this is real.” She says any plan to abolish cash must be deliberate and inclusive. “We need to do this thoughtfully. We need to really understand the national ramifications of losing a physical fiat currency.

We must not sleepwalk into it.”

Sites chosen for the Community Access to Cash Pilots:

  • Ampthill, Bedforshire

  • Burslem, Staffordshire

  • Botton Village, North Yorkshire

  • Cambuslang, South Lanarkshire, Scotland

  • Denny, Falkirk, Scotland

  • Hay-on-Wye, Powys, Wales

  • Lulworth, Dorset

  • Rochford, Essex

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