Over 100 bank branches have closed in Malaga in the past year.
A sign has been stuck on the door of the bank and it has caused a huge amount of consternation among a group of pensioners who are standing outside the entrance. It is 11 o’clock in the morning and, as well as complaining to each other, they lose no time in breaking the bad news to everyone else who arrives to do their normal banking business.
“They’re closing this branch down? Well, where is it moving to?” ask the newcomers. “To Malaga city”, they are told. The disbelief on their faces is understandable, because this scene took place in Ronda, which is an hour and a half away from Malaga by car. Nor was this an isolated case: similar scenes are almost certainly taking place in Estepona, Fuengirola, Marbella, Antequera and other municipalities which have been left without a branch which is part of the Bankia group. Of the 40 branches of Caja Madrid and Bancaja which used to exist the province, only eight remain now: there are seven in Malaga city and one in Torremolinos. It means that thousands of customers are obliged to travel every time they need to carry out a transaction in person or to withdraw money from a cash machine without being charged.
The bank restructuring which was imposed by Brussels is having unexpected consequences for the man in the street. The clients of Novagalicia could describe these more than most people, because they are having to travel not only from different places in Malaga province but also from Granada, Lucena and Algeciras to the branch in Malaga city, which has taken over the clients of no fewer than 28 branches after the wave of closures. And what lies ahead for clients of Catalunya Banc (formerly Caixa Catalunya) is even worse: in the near future its bank will disappear not only from Malaga province, but from the region of Andalucía altogether.
This wave of closures of bank branches began with the economic crisis and has accelerated in the past two years. In the province there are now 1,055 bank branches, and that is 338 fewer than in 2008. Over 100 have disappeared during the past year, and that does not include the most recent closures because the latest figures that were issued by the Bank of Spain were for the period up to 1st June. The percentage by which the retail banking network has dropped is 24 per cent, which is even higher than the 20 per cent registered by the Bank of Spain in its day. And Malaga is experiencing more closures than other areas, because it is paying for the excesses of the banking sector during the boom years when banks from all over the country ‘invaded’ the Costa del Sol in search of a slice of the property cake.
Now, it is precisely those banks from elsewhere that are suffering the greatest effects, in some cases following direct orders from Brussels. That is the case with Bankia, Novagalicia, CatalunyaBanc, BMN and others that have received State aid. Their clients are suffering the most extreme consequences, because they have to travel somewhere else for such a routine matter as going to the bank. However, even the most well-established banks in Malaga, like Unicaja, Santander, La Caixa and Cajamar are reducing their network of branches, leaving thousands of customers without their local bank.
As a result of these cutbacks, 10 villages in rural areas of Malaga province now have no bank at all, and in others the banks only open on certain days or at certain times. The problem is not exclusive to rural areas, though, as even in Malaga city there are some districts where there are no banks, such as Carlinda, where local residents held a demonstration this summer to protest at the closure of the only bank, which was a branch of Unicaja. It disappeared as part of the bank’s ‘slimming-down’ process, which involved doing away with 97 branches, not just in Malaga but throughout its network. The bank has not revealed exactly how many branches have already closed, but union sources calculate that there have been 28 closures since 2011.
Another of the biggest groups in the province, Santander-Banesto, has yet to specify how the disappearance of Banesto will affect the province, although in recent months the window blinds have already been down in some local branches and it is predicted that 700 are to be closed all over the country. La Caixa, after absorbing Cajasol, has also noticeably restructured its retail network.
The most visible area where this ‘fleeing’ of banks has taken place is the Teatinos district of Malaga. Once, five different bank branches in the Plaza Pintor Sandro Boticelli competed for business; now there are just two. And in nearby Avenida Louis Pasteur four branches have closed down, although three still remain. In the Carretera de Cadiz district there is another example: the Carril de la Chupa used to be home to seven banks but now has only one: a branch of Banco Santander.
The Consumers Union office in Malaga has received numerous calls from bank clients who are worried and upset because the branches they have dealt with all their lives have closed down. “We receive a lot of complaints, most recently about Unicaja and Banesto”, says its director, Jesús Burgos, who explains that most people feel they have been “kidnapped”. Their accounts are moved to a branch in another district, the new branch is no longer close to their home or place of work, they don’t know the employees, they have to queue for longer at the cash machine or counter…. “It’s a situation that the banks aren’t managing very well and there is a gap in the law that means that people can do nothing about this, even in such ridiculous situations as when a bank disappears from a town altogether”, he explains.
Unions point out another downside: the increased workload for the staff in the branches that are still open is resulting in clients receiving worse service. “There are fewer staff, more clients, less time to attend to them and more pressure to meet sales targets”, sums up Antonio Hidalgo of the Comfía-CCOO.
The closure of branches, argues Jesús Burgos, causes “special problems” in small villages because it means that in most cases people have to travel many kilometres to carry out banking transactions. And those worst affected are the elderly, because they are less mobile and are less able to use telephone or Internet services, he warns.
The consumers associations recommend that people write to complain if they are transferred to another branch against their wishes, although the associations do admit that the only solution may be to change to a different bank altogether. Nevertheless, this is not an option for those clients who are tied to their bank because they have a mortgage.