FEARS that large parts of Ross-shire could become “cash deserts” because of proposed changes to ATMs have set alarm bells ringing at a time when anger is already mounting over the raft of bank closures hitting the county.
Britain’s largest independent cash machine operators have warned they may have to close thousands of ATMs or start charging consumers to withdraw money if banks go ahead with plans to cut the fees paid by card issuers.
North politicians are concerned at changes which could threaten rural or seldom-used cashpoints, raising fears that large areas could be left without easy access to cash – and potentially dealing a major blow to the tourist trade currently booming on the back of record-breaking cruise liner visits to Invergordon and the North Coast 500 route.
Link, the company that oversees many free-to-use ATMs across the country, is under pressure to reduce the amount it charges the banks to allow customers to use the machines, from around 25p per withdrawal to 20p.
Independent ATM operator NoteMachine said the push by some banks to reduce their own costs was being led by RBS and added: “If the change is implemented the cost of maintaining the network would fall on consumers in a direct transfer of the financial responsibility currently held by the banks.
“Rural communities are already facing limited access to financial services through a wide-reaching programme of bank branch closures.”
NoteMachine is calling on the Westminster government to intervene and prevent the collapse of the Link system and the disintegration of the free-to-access machine network in the UK.
A spokesman added: “Without action consumers will pay the cost.”
The threat comes at a worrying time for the Highlands with RBS set to close 62 branches in Scotland, amongst them Tain and Kyle of Lochalsh.
This concern was echoed by Ross, Skye and Lochaber MP Ian Blackford, himself a former banker.
“This is a further cause for concern as the very banks who are closing branches and leaving communities without a service are now putting pressure on ATM providers to reduce their fees by as much as 20 per cent," he said.
In the ongoing battle against RBS plans to close a string of Highland branches community leaders want a pledge of solidarity from politicians against the proposals.
A letter from the Association of Inverness Area Community Councils to MP Drew Hendry, MSPs and Highland councillors also lists a raft of other grievances.
Council service cuts, a newly mooted £1-a-night tourism bed tax proposal and lingering gaps in high speed broadband all feature.
Community councillors rue the loss of business banking services such as pay-in facilities – and have added security concerns to the mix.
The letter refers to "the risk to operators who must hold large sums of cash at a business until they can pay it in, and the loss of money exchange services compounded by the closure or downgrading of many post offices".
The heavily tax-payer subsidised RBS maintains that its branch closures programme follows "an extensive review".
Although opinion on a possible tourism tax is divided at Highland Council, administration leaders favour it, saying it would raise a minimum of £11 million a year to upgrade roads and improve tourism facilities.
Highland councillors this month backed a motion calling on the UK government to ensure communities have access to a minimum level of banking services.
Mr Hendry said: "I’ve been in touch with RBS to highlight my opposition.
"In the meantime, it’s vital we build a robust coalition against this decision and this intervention by our community councils is most welcome."
Conservative MSP Ed Mountain said: "In the Highlands, where broadband is limited, to say customers can rely on internet banking is at best foolhardy, certainly disingenuous.
"Local businesses will be hard hit by these closures. It’s time the RBS stood by their slogan ‘Here for you’.
"We, the taxpayers, were here for them when they needed us and now they desert us.
"The issue of bed tax is ill-conceived. We want to encourage tourism not curtail it."
A spokeswoman for VisitScotland said: "We’ve switched our focus and investment into new and diverse initiatives to ensure we reach as many visitors to the Highlands as possible with the information they want, in the way they want it, when they want it."
Labour MSP Rhoda Grant has urged the UK government to "step in and stop the proposed closure of 62 RBS branches."
"The concerns of our community councils are the concerns of many people throughout the Highlands who are seeing services close or cut due to austerity budgets brought in over many years by both the Westminster and the Scottish governments," she said.