Nationwide has made a bold commitment to protect branches as it urges businesses to rediscover their role in the community at a difficult time for the nation.

Failing to embrace changing consumer needs and not actively encouraging communities to thrive could spell the end for many local shopping centres due to disenfranchised local shoppers, Britain’s largest building society warns.

Nationwide, which has around 650 branches, has today committed to not leave any town or city in which it is currently based without a branch for at least two years.

Nationwide hopes that the assurance, which lasts until at least May 2021, will give consumers confidence that their local shopping centres will not be left branchless. It has been made as far ahead in the future as is possible given Nationwide’s scale and the fact it is not immune to major shifts in consumer behaviour.

The move, which comes in the wake of significant bank branch closures, forms part of Nationwide’s staunch support of communities, which includes allocating £22 million of funding over five years to help local housing issues, pledging to serve small businesses by entering the business banking market and an ambitious £50 million project to build more than 230 new homes in Swindon, with any profit to be reinvested back into communities.

A bank or building society branch often acts as a bellwether for the health of a high street and can be a catalyst for growth or decline. They are not only places to access cash and make transactions but also provide somewhere for people to talk to someone face-to-face regarding their finances or concerns. Nationwide data shows a clear correlation between the health of a high street and the local contribution of a branch due to increased footfall and transactions.

An estimated 10,000 shops are expected to close over the course of 2019, according to the Centre of Retail Research1. But while much of the focus on declining footfall has been on the shift to online retail, Nationwide believes more needs to be done to serve and empower communities.

Joe Garner, Chief Executive of Nationwide Building Society, said: “Healthy high streets are vital in keeping local communities alive. They are a major part of our history and identity – a space where we come together. But in many cases they have become almost uniquely transactional, despite consumer behaviour highlighting that people increasingly want to relax and enjoy themselves when out shopping. We need to rediscover the sense of belonging that has served communities for centuries and as businesses we need to open our doors to people and not just customers. It’s not good enough that we succumb to the perceived inevitable and watch our local shopping centres fade away. We owe it to our communities to make ourselves relevant again.”

The Society is committed to spending £350 million over five years - £80 million this year alone - to ensure its branches remain relevant to the needs of people – from introducing high-definition video and iPads to creating areas where members can chat, read a newspaper or have a coffee. Creating a sense of community in the branch has been key to the new design. Branch usage remains stable, while there has been significant growth in some areas, with in-branch current account openings increasing by more than a third (38%) in the last five years.

Nationwide will still close branches where it makes sense to do so, for example where two outlets are near each other and could better serve members if they were combined and received additional investment.

The Society will continue to look into the health of the high street this year and will be working with like-minded organisations to create positive change and explore what can be done to help communities thrive.

Garner added: “As a mutual we exist to serve the needs of our members and we are driven by that purpose.  Our members tell us they want digital convenience and a human touch.  That’s why we are both investing in technology and making this promise to maintain our branches. Even with the latest technology, members appreciate being able to visit a building and meet with real people who can help them with their financial affairs or even just listen.”