Banking

How the reborn high street is making us both fat and fit


The old bank opposite the cycle shop on the high street is about to reopen as an exercise studio and gym. That makes at least four such places within around 500 yards of each other. On the other hand, another former bank building is now a Gail’s bakery, so at least shuttered financial institutions are offering diversity on health options.

What used to be Barclays is now good for sourdough loaves, brownies and sausage rolls. What used to be NatWest will help you work off those calories. When you look at it that way, this is practically cartel behaviour. The Gail’s is clearly a valuable addition, but the bank was better for me. Say what you like about Barclays, but I’m pretty sure I never ate their banknotes on the way home.

The Santander has also gone but has not yet transformed into anything else. Presumably it is still working through the pastries-or-Pilates dilemma faced by former financial institutions. Perhaps it should consider reopening as a hairdresser. There is a serious gap in the market in that part of the high street. Residents still have to walk several yards to get their hair done. They might even have to cross a road.

Hairdressers, cafés, exercise studios, cycle shops and vets seem to be the future of our high streets. The logic of this is obvious. The only places which see a future are those offering physical services you cannot simply secure with a click of the mouse. By any measure our high street is still very well served, especially if you need a haircut. Yet each new arrival seems to diminish rather than broaden the diversity.

And there are now no banks left. If you want to get some cash you have to go to the cashpoint at the Tesco. I still don’t really understand why high-street banks could not share premises. Instead of four or more locations, why not agree to one banking centre with a desk or two for each business? It is not as if they offer a personal service any more. Every few months I am phoned by someone claiming to be my new personal premium banker trying to sell me some new service. I never hear from them again and then a few months later my new personal premium banker gets in touch and we start all over again.

I don’t mind banking being impersonal. I have no desire to return to days when you had to explain to some smug bank manager why you wanted to make a withdrawal before he (it was always he) consented to giving you the money that was actually yours. But at least this was a service. It was personal and there may well have been people saved from foolish moves by the wise words of a prudent personal banker. Technological evolution — from ATMs to online banking — has fuelled the change, but the rush to cut costs and remove genuine personal service from their offering has probably hastened the banks’ transformation into cafés and exercise studios. At least if I walk into Gail’s I can emerge with a croissant.

But I am now wondering if Gail’s can learn from the Barclays experience and appoint a premium personal baker. That’s a call I’d probably take. “Hello, I was wondering if you had considered switching some of your savings into sourdough?” Obviously the gyms are very big on personal trainers and motivators but cafés are now some way behind the curve. Surely there is scope for someone standing over your table shouting: “Come on now, one more bite. You can do it! Polish off that Danish!” We have been warned this month about the dangers of passive cake in the office. This would be active cake, which is obviously much better for you.

I do worry though about the polarisation of the high street, if it is increasingly split between cafés on one side and gyms and bike shops on the other. This is virtually Brexiters and Remainers. The new divide will be between fatties and fitties. So we need some way to bring the retail sector back together. In fact, perhaps the gyms could lend the cafés a few personal pastry trainers as a way of drumming up business. Encourage people to put on a few pounds then reel them in for a spin class. I’m sure we could think of a good slogan, Gateauff your arse, perhaps.

Follow Robert on Twitter @robertshrimsley and email him at robert.shrimsley@ft.com

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