1 Dec 2020

Reefton residents face long drive to do their banking

7:41 am on 1 December 2020

Reefton residents are horrified at the prospect of losing the only bank in town.

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The Bank of New Zealand will shut the Reefton branch along with 37 others around the country by the middle of next year.

Reefton resident Di Griffin says they now face having to travel an hour to Greymouth and an hour back to do their banking.

That's not great news for the large number of elderly folk.

"My concern is for these elderly folk that we have no public transport either, so if they don't drive and they don't have the internet, how are they going to maintain their finances?"

A BNZ spokesperson said that around 300 people have used the Reefton branch on more than one occasion in the last six months, and digital enablement among customers connected to that branch was sitting at 68 percent, which was close to the national average of around 75 percent.

Griffin said local businesses would also suffer.

"If we get a sudden influx of visitors from Christchurch or Canterbury way, which we do from time to time and the businesses run short on change, they cannot go an hour down to Greymouth to get more change, and an hour back."

BNZ said when the Reefton branch closed it planned to install a Smart ATM that could handle traditional over the counter-type transactions, such as deposits and cash withdrawals.

Reefton sits within the Buller District. Mayor Jamie Cleine said it can be bad for a town's reputation to be without a mainstream banking service.

"If people are looking to invest, or start a new venture in town, it says something if a town has basic services, such as banks."

Griffin said it also meant businesses would have to carry more cash to tide them over weekends and holiday periods when the tourists rolled in.

"Which ... really is kind of putting it out there for anybody of evil intent."

Cleine was among the mayors of the West Coast district councils, the chair of the regional council, iwi representatives and Development West Coast now lobbying the government.

They have highlighted their plight as yet another slight on small rural communities, in a letter to Finance Minister Grant Robertson.

Cleine said they had wanted to be included in a regional banking hub pilot scheme, now being rolled out in four New Zealand centres.

"This is more-or-less just bringing it to the government's attention. I suspect the answer will be they'll let this trial play out and see where it leads, but for elderly people being able to have confidence in banking locally, I just think it's essential."

The pilot was being led by the New Zealand Bankers' Association and included six major banks which would test demand for basic banking services in regional communities.

It has just started in Twizel and in Martinborough, and would be rolled out in Stoke - a suburb of Nelson - and Opunake over the next couple of weeks.

Association chief executive Roger Beaumont said trial regions were chosen on a range of criteria.

"Some of that is geographic spread, so there's two in the South Island and two in the North Island, and then we wanted to test different scenarios - scenarios where there was still one bank on town remaining, and also where there hadn't been a bank in town for a year or two."

Beaumont said Martinborough had been without a bank for almost two years.

He said Covid lockdown triggered a rapid change in people's banking behaviour, including a rapid uptake among older people in digital and online banking.

He said the West Coast was not alone in wanting to be part of the pilot, but it was yet to be seen if it would result in a resumed banking service in Reefton.

"We need to get through this pilot and test and learn what the community demand and interest is, and determine where-to from there."

Di Griffin said failing that, they may try to persuade the Nelson Building Society to expand its West Coast interests into Reefton.

BNZ said it was also planning digital banking sessions to help people less familiar with these ways of banking.

It had also lowered the age limit on its phone line banking from over 70s to over 50s, to "help older people get familiar with online and phone banking".