Can app rescue the millions of us who still rely on cash?

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Lifeline: Toby Walne collects his cash from one of the shops in Burslem after ordering on the smartphone app, above left


A revolutionary new ‘click-and-collect’ cash pilot scheme has just launched in the Staffordshire town of Burslem. It’s an initiative that if successful could be rolled out nationally and prove a financial lifeline for the eight million people still dependent on cash to manage their household finances. 

Using a phone app, the service – provided by Swiss company Sonect – allows someone to order up to £200 of cash that they can then pick up at a local shop. It is free to use, does not require the user to buy anything, and is designed to fill the void left when bank branches and free-to-use cash machines close, leaving residents with no local access to cash. 

Nicknamed ‘the mother town of the Potteries’, Burslem is five miles north of its more famous sibling Stoke-on-Trent. It was once home to scores of potteries, including Royal Doulton and Wedgwood, but with production shifting overseas, most of the factories have long since closed. Left behind is a deprived area ravaged by poverty and long-term unemployment. 

Lifeline: Toby Walne collects his cash from one of the shops in Burslem after ordering on the smartphone app, above left

Predictably, in its hour of need, all the high street banks have abandoned Burslem. The last branch, run by Lloyds, shut four years ago – a cruel blow for this 21,000-strong and proud community.

But in light of its acute lack of access to cash, and underlying social deprivation, it was chosen to trial the click-and-collect app run by Sonect. 

Keen to see this new empowering technology in action, I visited a wet and windy Burslem last week. Initially, hooking up to the high-tech wizardry was a challenge as I shivered in the rain outside the closed Moorcroft Pottery museum. 

The app was a doddle to download, but I then had to put £10 into the account from my bank debit card before it would work. Any amount more than £10 required me to input my passport details – a measure designed to stop money laundering that could well put off some users. 

After I swore at the software gremlins that smugly typed back ‘an error has occurred’, Sonect consumer adviser Rachel McCarthy stepped in and suggested we visit a shop where I could test the app. 

Once inside the One Stop minimarket, the app clicked into life. I could look at a map on my phone and choose which shop to pick up my ordered cash from. I was standing inside one of the seven participating retailers in Burslem, so I selected £10 of cash and a barcode appeared on my phone screen. I showed this at the counter to shop manager Ash Ashiaf who scanned it and handed over a crisp £10 note in return. 

All fine, but what do the locals think? Reaction was mixed. 

David Hughes, popping into the store clutching a handful of fivepence pieces so he could buy some tea bags, says he would struggle with the app. ‘I welcome anything that can help me get cash, but sadly my phone cannot use it.’ 

The 58-year-old then showed me his antique Nokia phone to prove his point. He added: ‘For me cash is vital for budgeting. Every penny counts – I am a full-time carer for my wife Linda who suffers from a chronic obstructive pulmonary condition. I only ever use banknotes and coins and I am not interested in online banking.’ David admits he often pays £1.25 to access cash at a local cash machine. 

Alex Scarratt has her hands full as co-owner of the local Get It Gone Skip Hire & Waste Removal Service. She is also mother to three young children. The 24-year-old, visiting the mini-market to get some refreshments, says: ‘There is a post office about a mile away that offers basic banking where you can also get cash, but there are always long queues and it is hard for many of the elderly people who live around here to get there.

‘I welcome this cash app and I hope it is a success, but I do think the banks should be doing more to provide access to cash in this economically challenged town. A branch would be a nice start.’ 

School canteen assistant Beverley Rogers believes the cash app is a ‘great idea’. But she warns: ‘It will be tough convincing people to adopt it as those who like cash rather than paying by cards or their phone tend not to be big fans of new technology.’ 

Sonect is convinced the app will gain traction. It has already persuaded 2,300 retailers to offer the click-and-collect service in Switzerland. Ron Delnevo, UK director for Sonect, says: ‘Unfortunately, the future of banking is now not about opening more bank branches and ATMs. 

‘But if the banks are willing to support this new app they will not be seen to be abandoning the high street. In time, it could offer a solution to providing nationwide access to cash.’ 

Access to cash is currently under great threat. Some 55 bank branches a month have been closed over the past six years while as many as 8,700 free ATMs have been removed in the past three years.

Experts believe that up to 40 per cent of bank branches could close this year – a trend accelerated by the pandemic and the wider availability (and higher payment limit) of contactless payment. 

Santander has already said it will axe 111 branches by the end of August while TSB is half way through axeing 164 branches. HSBC is culling 82 branches this year while Lloyds put an axe to 56 branches last year. The Sonect service in Burslem is being paid for by a bank-funded ‘community access to cash’ pilot scheme for the next six months – with the hope banks will pay for its expansion nationwide if a success. 

The pilot scheme, centred on eight locations, is also testing other ways of delivering banking services on the high street (see box, below left). The Burslem pilot includes turning a fee-charging ATM on the high street into a free cash machine as well as a ‘financial hub’ in the local Methodist church. 

But when I knocked on the church’s side door, I discovered the hub was closed. A note pinned to the door said: ‘Appointment only’.

After making numerous phone calls, I was told the hub was focused on debt counselling and educating people on how to bank online – it does not provide access to cash. 

Leaving Burslem in the pouring rain, I was left with a nagging feeling. Namely, wonderful as this new click-and-collect app from Sonect might be, all that locals really want is a traditional bank on their doorstep. One where they can do their banking without having to own the latest all-singing, all-dancing mobile phone. 

Is that really too much to ask of the banks? 

HOW PROJECT IS HELPING COMMUNITIES THAT NEED POUNDS 

The ‘community access to cash’ pilot scheme, which Burslem is part of, is being led by Natalie Ceeney, the former boss of the Financial Ombudsman Service and author of the 2019 report on access to cash. 

The scheme is testing a range of ideas designed to improve access to cash across eight locations, many of which are based around cashback. 

Ceeney says: ‘We estimate that as many as eight million people in Britain rely on cash for their day-to-day needs – so cashback is essential for communities struggling without banks and where free cash machines have disappeared. 

‘But at the moment shops pay a fee of between three and four per cent for providing cashback at the till. 

‘If banks were prepared to bear more of this fee then cashback would become a cost-effective way of making cash available on the high street.’ 

As a result of sterling work by Lord Holmes of Richmond, legislation will soon pave the way for cashback to be made widely available without the need for a customer to first make a purchase. 

As well as testing the Sonect click-and-collect app, the cash pilot scheme includes:

  • Two ‘banking hubs’ – in Rochford, Essex and Cambuslang, South Lanarkshire. Here people can do basic banking as well as meet a representative of their bank on a designated day. The banking service is provided by the Post Office. 
  • The installation of six free cash machines. These are in Botton, North Yorkshire; a military base at Lulworth, Dorset; and at the banking hub in Rochford. Fee-charging cash machines have been converted into free ATMs at Millisle post office, County Down, Northern Ireland; Burslem; and at the Cambuslang banking hub. 
  • Cashback trials. 
  • A ‘pop-up’ bank service at a Co-op store in Denny, Falkirk, in Scotland. 
  • A new post office in Hay-on-Wye, Brecknockshire, offering a free ATM and basic banking.

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