4 Jun 2015

Shipping container bank under threat

9:57 am on 4 June 2015

Ruatoria residents are upset and frustrated at the looming closure of the town's only bank, leaving them to drive 120km to the closest branch.

Ruatoria residents with a petition signed by hundreds of people demanding the only bank in town stays open. Their campaign has the support of Gisborne District Councillor Bill Burdett (far right).

Residents with a petition signed by hundreds of people demanding the only bank in town stays open. Their campaign has the support of Gisborne District Councillor Bill Burdett (far right). Photo: Supplied

But Westpac says fewer people are using the bank - which operates out of a shipping container - and it can not justify keeping it open.

The bank itself is the only East Coast branch north of Gisborne.

Run out of the container, it provides customers with advice on how to manage rent payments and food costs.

Manu Caddie, the local marae's treasurer, said it was invaluable.

"Last week we were changing our signatories from the marae bank account and an ATM isn't going to be able to handle that and we're going to have to travel a couple of hours into Gisborne," he said.

"It's going to be a massive inconvenience. Just about every marae, sports club, church, kohanga reo goes to this bank and for some it's a three hour drive."

The East Cape and the Ruatoria township, which has a population of about 750, is the maximum 10 on the deprivation index, meaning it is one of the most poverty-stricken areas in New Zealand.

Rae Ngarimu lives in the town and has been knocking on doors with a petition against the closure.

"You're in one of the poorest places in the North Island - probably New Zealand - and people are going to have to travel to Gisborne - that's a cost in itself," she said.

"For a lot of young families that's carting around children - which you can't do until after school.

"A lot of people don't have internet, don't have cars - that's expensive."

Manu Caddie said locals were not surprised at the news - it had been on the cards for more than 10 years.

"Last time there was a community meeting and executives came from Sydney and Wellington and the community persuaded them to keep it open," he said.

"People feel like they've been loyal to this bank and to the branch for decades and they'd love to see it stay, it's the only bank left on the coast."

In a statement, Westpac said the proposal to close the branch was because fewer people were using it.

"This is a proposal only and we are consulting with our employees. There has been a steady decline in people using the branch over the past few years and we are assessing our options as a result," it said.

"Should the proposal go ahead we intend to leave an ATM and deposit facilities in the area."

A community meeting will be held on Monday in Ruatoria, and an online petition has already amassed more than 700 supporters in 24 hours.

Gisborne mayor, Meng Foon, said he was on their side, but there was little he could do.

"The only thing that we can do is lobby and advocate on the behalf of the community," he said.

"But there could be an opportunity for another bank to go there - Kiwibank perhaps."

He said Kiwibank considered opening a branch in Ruatoria a few years ago, and he said he was hopeful they would look at it again.

First Union president Syd Keepa said he was worried about staff at the branch.

"The thing is, there's three to four staff there and if that bank closes its doors, there's three to four whanau who are going to be impacted by its closure," he said.

"Those four people - there's no other work there - they'll have to travel 200km to keep doing what they're doing now."

A final decision on whether to close the bank will be made when a consultation period ends on 20 June.