At least one bank branch closes every day in Belgium, and as the move to digitise banking services gains increasing momentum, there are concerns that the elderly will be left behind.
Driven by cost restructuring and the success of digital banking, Belgian banks are rapidly scaling down their branch network, according to reporting by De Standaard.
Between 2008 and 2020, the total number of local bank branches in Belgium was cut almost in half - from 8,300 to 4,200 - and 2020 had the second highest number of closures in the past decade with 250 banks shutting their doors last year alone.
ATMs are also in decline. Figures from the Febelfin banking federation show that there were 6,416 ATMs in Belgium at the end of 2020, a decrease of 1,044 or nearly 14% compared to 2019.
Unlike the closing of bank branches, the reduction in the number of ATMs is a more recent phenomenon. ATMs were still being added in Belgium until around 2015, when there were over 8,700 of them.
For a number of smaller towns, this means there’s no ATM or branch closeby, and for people who aren’t adept at using the latest technology to access banking services like digital deposits of checks or online bill paying - in particular, the elderly - this is a problem.
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In recent months, the Flemish Elderly Council has repeatedly denounced the “digital persuasion of the banks,” saying that without branches or ATMs, everyone is forced to use digital services with which the elderly aren’t familiar. They add that classic, offline banking services like counter transactions come at a high cost.
“Banks are increasingly forcing consumers to do their banking digitally and also to refrain from making cash payments,” consumer organisation Test Achats told De Standaard. “Anyone who wants to withdraw money, print account statements or make a paper transfer, has to pay more and more often and more.”
The organisation collected 28,000 signatures on a petition asking the federal government to freeze bank charges and guarantee basic services for non-digital bank customers.
In response, State Secretary for Consumer Affairs Eva De Bleeker promised to address the issue by creating a “comprehensive comparison tool between banking and insurance products” to “better inform bank customers about which banking service suits them best.”
But MPs Leen Dierick and Steven Matheï say this isn’t enough. They’re calling on the De Croo government to make agreements with Belgian banks to “keep physical services accessible and affordable for everyone.”
As part of that call, they're asking that 95% of the Belgian population have access to an ATM within a maximum radius of five kilometres and at least one in every municipality.