The sector is working on white label ATMs after providing service to 57% of towns with more than 500 inhabitants that did not have such service

After years of regression, access to the most basic banking services in rural Spain has experienced significant progress since the end of 2021, thanks to the financial sector's heightened sensitivity to this problem and the drive provided by the Ministry of Economy.

Banks thus reduced the number of municipalities without physical access to banking by 300 last year, from 3,230 to 2,930, bringing the population without this service down by 97,955 people, from 657,557 in 2021 (1.4% of the Spanish population) to 559,602 (1.19%). If we add to this non-bank ATMs and cash-back (the possibility of obtaining cash in shops), the figures are even lower: 2,797 municipalities and 494,916 people (1% of the town), that is, 433 and 162,641 less than in 2021.

This is reflected in a report prepared by the Valencian Institute of Economic Research (Ivie) for the banking associations (AEB, CECA and Unacc). The study, prepared by Professor Joaquín Maudos, tracks the degree of compliance with the plan for rural Spain agreed in early October by the Ministry of Economy and the banking sector.

The Ministry is generally satisfied with the evolution of initiatives for rural Spain and the elderly. The plan, which includes the commitment to bring face-to-face financial services to "100% of the territory" for the first time in history, is broken down into two blocks according to the size of the towns: more or less than 500 inhabitants. In the first case, the number of excluded municipalities has decreased from 243 in 2021 to 164 in 2022.

A second quarterly report indicates that between January and March the figure fell by another five, although it is specified that at least 55 more towns - mainly in Burgos and León - will be added in the coming months, so that the excluded population within this group of municipalities will fall from the 211,550 people in 2021 (0.45% of the total number of citizens) to around 88,000 (0.18%).

Banks thus provided access to their services to 69 new municipalities with more than 500 inhabitants between December 2021 and last March: in one a branch was opened (Torre de Santa María, in Cáceres), in 33 towns they installed ATMs, in 21 towns banking services were made available through post offices, and in 14 towns through ofibuses. In addition, in a further 15 of these towns it is possible to withdraw and deposit cash through non-bank ATMs, which were not accounted for in the first survey covering the situation at the end of 2021.

With the 55 municipalities with more than 500 inhabitants that will be added to the list in the coming months, the banking sector will have brought its services to 57% of those identified at the end of 2021.

It is also committed to covering the entire population by October, one year after the signing of the plan. With this in mind, it is finalising the activation of the second phase of the programme: the installation of white label ATMs. Thus, in recent weeks it has negotiated the distribution of costs among the banks.

Postal workers and shops

As for municipalities with less than 500 inhabitants, in addition to the above solutions, the sector is also considering other alternatives such as Correos Cash (obtaining cash from postal workers) or cash back and cash in shop (obtaining cash in shops). Within this group, the number of excluded municipalities fell by 354 in 2022, from 2,987 to 2,639 (88 thanks to cash-back and 45 thanks to non-bank ATMs, not covered in the 2021 report), and the population without banking services fell by 93,083, from 446,007 to 352,924 people.

In terms of the total number of municipalities with more and less than 500 inhabitants, the number of towns without a branch increased last year (by 111, to 4,533), but there was also an increase in the number of towns with a bank ATM (by 86), financial agents (105), post offices (199) and mobile offices (21). As a result, the number of unserviced towns by year-end fell by 300, in addition to the 133 serviced through cash-back and non-bank ATMs.

The report highlights that, despite the reduction in the total number of branches in the country (down 1,367 to 17,648), Spain continues to have the third most densely populated network in Europe (2,463 inhabitants per branch compared to the EU average of 3,232). The total number of ATMs also decreased last year (by 2,406 to 45,233), but the Spanish network ranks fourth in the EU (995 inhabitants per ATM compared to the European average of 1,344). The study also stresses that of the 4,533 municipalities without a branch at the end of 2022, a total of 78.3% (3,550) did not have a branch in 2008 either, the year in which the number of branches reached an all-time high, "which means that closures are concentrated in municipalities that currently still have at least one bank branch".