By Daniel Tischer, Sara Davies & Jamie Evans
These days it’s common to hear discussion of the UK being on the verge of becoming a ‘cashless’ society – but, for a range of reasons, this may be premature. For the foreseeable future, a more appropriate term may be ‘cash-lite’. In this blog, Dr Daniel Tischer reflects on our research in South Wales in which we explore a new method for identifying and protecting the most vulnerable communities in a ‘cash-lite’ society.
Much recent commentary suggests that the UK, and a number of other countries, are rapidly moving towards becoming ‘cashless’ societies – but there remain multiple hurdles standing in the way of ‘cashlessness’. One such hurdle is that digital payments do not yet quite match cash for reliability: technical ‘glitches’ too often stop us from paying digitally. The (partial) outage of the VISA network in June 2018, for example, left many Europeans unable to pay by card, and other, smaller-scale incidents are not infrequent either. There are also big hurdles related to consumer needs and preferences, or the unsuitability of digital in certain circumstances (for example, in areas with no / a poor internet connection).
This leads to the conclusion that, in the near future at least, the UK will not become cashless. Rather it seems we are becoming a ‘cash-lite’ society – one in which cash usage is forecasted to decrease to about 1 in 10 transactions by 2028 – mirroring the experience of other low-cash countries, such as Sweden and Canada.
Vulnerability & the poverty premium in a cash-lite society
So what does a cash-lite society mean for consumers? Well for most people, most of the time, there will be few problems – but that does not mean that there are not significant risks that need to be mitigated. As fewer transactions are made in cash, more ATMs will be closed down or switched from free to fee-charging – and, as we saw both in our case study of Bristol’s cash network published in May last year and in national research from Which? in September, the latter of these is an issue which disproportionately affects more deprived areas.
Paying to access cash was a component of the University of Bristol’s ‘poverty premium’ calculations in 2016, albeit a relatively small one, and this suggests that vulnerable communities may be left even further behind. Even a small charge of £1 per transaction present a significant cost to low-income households, especially when only small sums—£10 or £20—are taken out to purchase basic food items or pay bills.
Identifying and supporting potentially vulnerable communities
As our society becomes more cash-lite, there is a danger of increasingly uneven access to cash across the country. This makes it important that we are able to map and identify those areas that are not only losing their ability to access cash but are also less resilient to such changes taking place.
Our second report on access to cash, published in January 2020, therefore advances our methodology from our Bristol case study to identify communities in South Wales that are most ‘vulnerable’ in terms of access to cash. We identify vulnerability in two steps: 1) by considering their current ability to access cash – where AvCash Index scores under 5 highlight communities with a low number of ATMs or other cash infrastructure within a 1km radius; and 2) by taking into account communities’ ability to cope without such access. The latter involves the construction of a measure of travel difficulty, indicating that a high proportion of residents in an area may find it difficult to travel far to access cash (or other essential services, for that matter). This measure incorporates: levels of car ownership, disability, age, income and access to public transport (in the form of nearby bus stops).
Looking at communities with poor access to cash and a high proportion of residents who may struggle to travel to access their money, provides us with a clearer idea of where poor cash infrastructures may have the highest negative impact. While this of course does not mean that there will not be individuals in other areas for whom access to cash is a problem, it does offer a useful tool for the industry to prioritise need – for example, when evaluating communities’ requests for a new ATM or identifying which ATMs to protect through additional subsidies. Indeed, as shown in the map below, there are many vulnerable areas without protected ATMs which may benefit from them:
Overall, we find that over a quarter (27 per cent) of neighbourhoods in our case study fall within the 20 per cent worst areas nationally for travel difficulty and have an AvCash Index score of less than 10. Similarly, 8 per cent of areas score poorly for travel difficulty and have no free ATM, while a further 12 per cent of areas have just one free ATM and high travel difficulty. These neighbourhoods are not solely rural; many are located on the outskirts of towns. Taken together, we find that over 100,000 people in this region (out of approximately 500,000) live in vulnerable neighbourhoods and do not currently benefit from a protected ATM.
Our geographical mapping approach therefore presents a potentially valuable tool to identify vulnerability by taking a community-based perspective. It raises further questions about the sustainability of the UK cash infrastructure and the ability of LINK and regulators to reign in private and profit-driven actions by providers of access to cash.
But crucially, we believe that our approach provides policy-makers and regulators with additional insights into the impact current changes have on the most vulnerable communities, and to better understand what vulnerability means in particular contexts. We are hoping to work closely with stakeholders to map access to cash nationally to inform policies towards ensuring cash is available for free to those for rely on it.