Britain’s network of free to use cash machines is on course to be “decimated” in the coming months unless urgent action is taken, warn campaigners.
New figures obtained by consumer group Which? show fees of at least 95p a withdrawal were imposed on almost 1,700 machines in the first three months of this year, including a “staggering” 1,250 in March alone.
The majority of these ATMs are operated by Cardtronics, the UK’s biggest cashpoint operator, which has warned it is likely to convert a further thousand machines to charge fees in the coming months.
Notemachine, another major cashpoint provider, has warned it is considering converting up to 4,000 machines in its 7,000-strong network to charge fees.
If these plans go ahead, the UK stands to lose more than one in eight of the country’s free-to-use ATMs.
When Which? asked people how much they were being charged to withdraw cash, fees ranged from 50p to £1.99 a transaction.
What’s forcing the changes
While digital payments are on the rise in the UK, there is still a real appetite and basic need for access to cash, with 2.2million people almost entirely reliant on cash in their daily lives.
Gareth Shaw, head of money, Which?, said: “Communities are being stripped of free access to cash at an alarming rate that could hit the most vulnerable in our society the hardest, while denying millions of people free withdrawals.”
The cost of cash withdrawals is being shifted from banks to customers as the fees banks pay to ATM operators have been reduced, and they are now charging fees on withdrawals to keep the system sustainable.
These changes have also seen thousands of cash machines disappear, at a rate of around 250 a month, stripping communities of the ability to get free access to their own money.
A spokesperson from Cardtronics said: “As banks continue to execute their strategy of branch closures nationwide, this leaves independent ATM deployers such as Cardtronics to fill the gap by providing local cash access for communities.
“Although we can operate ATMs more economically than anyone else, we have been forced into charging a fee for cash withdrawals on some of our machines where LINK’s cuts have left us with no choice.
“The decision on whether to introduce a fee is taken on a case-by-case basis and reflects the economic viability of the individual machine.
“We only ever charge a fee when there is no other option apart from removing the machine altogether.”
Peter McNamara, chief executive of NoteMachine, said: “NoteMachine has always operated a free-to-use model wherever possible.
“However, in a worst case scenario, unless urgent action is taken to reduce the pressure on ATM operators by reversing the interchange fee reductions, NoteMachine will be forced to begin converting ATMs to surcharging.”
John Howells, chief executive of Link, said: “Free access to cash is vital for consumers and the UK enjoys extensive coverage that Link is committed to protecting.
“There are more than 50,000 free-to-use ATMs across the UK, 10,000 more than we had in 2009, and currently 12,700 pay-to-use cash machines, down from over 23,000 in 2009.
“Less than 3% of withdrawals at Link ATMs incur a fee.
“For now, there is no need for consumers to be concerned and if they wish to find their most convenient free ATM they can download the Link app for free or access cash over the counter at over 11,500 Post Offices across the UK.
“However, we agree with Which? that regulatory support is needed as there is a risk to cash access in the long run.”
A spokesman for the Payment Systems Regulator (PSR) said: “In October 2018, we gave Link a direction to make sure it does all it can to meet its commitments to protecting the broad geographic spread of free-to-use ATMs.
“We are aware that some ATMs have changed from free-to-use ATMs to pay-to-use.
“We are looking into this and if it impacts on the commitment Link has made to us to protect the broad geographic spread of free-to-use ATMs we will take action.”