A Northland mayor is among counterparts across the country calling on the Government to conduct an inquiry into the effects of bank closures in rural New Zealand.
Far North Mayor John Carter said a lack of banking services in his district was a "really serious issue" and a number of factors have exacerbated the situation.
He wants a banking hub set up - similar to four regional hubs currently being trialled in Martinborough, Opunake, Stoke and Twizel.
Poor internet coverage and lack of knowledge about using the latest technology, physical handicaps, a geographically broad area, and safety risks in holding and carrying cash were among the factors that needed to be addressed, Carter said.
"There's a massive safety risk in businesses accumulating money and then trying to bank it, is just not secure. The upshot is they have to travel one to one and a half hours to do their banking.
"We are in discussions with the Government and the New Zealand Banking Association but sadly, there doesn't seem to be much support for a banking hub. However, that won't deter us.
"If we can get a banking hub in the district, a place where you can go irrespective of which bank you bank with, that's what we're working towards," Carter said.
Dorothy Gorrie volunteers for SeniorNet in Dargaville, a learning centre for older adult computer users, and said regardless of people's knowledge of technology, they were expected to do everything online.
"There are still a lot of people that don't have computers and it makes it hard for them to pay their bills. I'd still like to see banks remain."
Gorrie said far-flung towns would be most affected by the closure of banks, forcing people to travel long distances for their banking needs.
Ken Cashin, secretary of Greg Power Kaipara, said the concept of a banking hub would serve his members and others well.
"Only about one-third of our members use internet for banking and those who are computer-savvy, in the main, go along well but those who don't use it are our biggest worry," he said.
Cashin said his members have sent their concerns to the Grey Power Federation and these would be taken up with the relevant authorities in Wellington.
Kaipara Mayor Jason Smith said although he didn't sign the letter to the Government, he fully supported it as he was extremely concerned about a drop in banking services in his district over recent years.
He said the only town in Kaipara that has decent banking services was Dargaville, but in recent months BNZ closed its branch there and was operating a mobile service, as was ASB - from a carpark.
Smith said he did not sign the letter because for Kaipara, the "horse has already bolted" in terms of branch closures.
Whangārei Mayor Sheryl Mai said the letter was for rural provincial towns, not metropolitan cities like Whangārei.
"However, we'd support any initiative that provides equitable services to our people," she said.
In central Whanḡarei, ANZ closed its Rathbone St branch at the end of last year and moved all staff to its other branch, at the corner of Bank St and Rust Ave.
A spokeswoman said the bank would be investing in the Bank St branch with a refurbishment planned for later this year to better serve its customers and staff.
Apart from Whangārei, ANZ also has branches in Kerikeri, Dargaville, Kaikohe, and Kaitaia.
BNZ has branches in Whangārei, Kaikohe, Kaitaia, and Kerikeri. The Kaikohe branch will close next month.
In addition, the bank has seven ATMs at Doubtless Bay, Pahia, Dargaville, Otaika, Tikipunga Stationers, Wellsford and Whangārei Pak'nSave.
In November last year, the bank closed its Dargaville branch after 144 years, having been unable to renew its lease.
A mobile service was put in place on Tuesday and Wednesday but it cannot operate under alert level 2 Covid restrictions or higher so there's no BNZ presence in Dargaville during those restrictions. The bank closed its Paihia branch a little over three years ago.
A Westpac spokesman said the bank was not currently consulting with staff on closing any more branches in Northland.
"Most households in New Zealand have access to either a landline, mobile phone or computer which gives them 24-hour access to banking. We encourage customers to talk to us about their banking options."
Westpac has branches in Whangārei, Ruakākā, Dargaville, Kaikohe, Kerikeri and Kaitaia.
Roger Beaumont, chief executive of the New Zealand Bankers' Association, said branches were closing in some regional communities due to lack of demand – in some cases there were fewer than 10 customers a day — because customers were going online, called their bank or used an app.
He said four regional banking hubs were being trialled by six banks outside of Northland which have staff on hand, offering deposits and withdrawals, alongside phone and internet banking.
The trial will last 12 months.
"Some banks are trialling mobile branches and in many cases bank staff can come to your home, or offer training sessions about online banking. Customers should always talk to their bank about what they need – banks are more than willing to provide solutions."
Finance Minister Grant Robertsons said the banking hub trial was the Government's attempt to create a smoother transition for those who were not able find the services they needed from internet banking in their community.
After meeting with the South Wairarapa mayor, he said his initial response was to talk to the New Zealand Bankers Association about whether the banking hub trial could be expanded in light of the original commitment to halt closures during the trial, which has been overtaken by Covid.