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Frome community plans 'finance hub' as banks shut branches

By Robin Markwell & Tess de la Mare BBC News, Bristol

A community is exploring setting up a finance hub after losing a number of its banks.

The Natwest and HSBC branches in Frome, Somerset, closed this year, and Barclays has announced it is leaving. Residents have now set up "Prosper Frome", and plan to open a Post Office with space for professionals offering financial services.

Dr Jean Boulton, of Prosper Frome, said the community had lots of "pockets of financial expertise".

Speaking to BBC West, Dr Boulton explained that although Frome has lost three big names, it is still not eligible for an official banking hub because it still has a certain number of banks and ATM machines. Banking hubs are being set up across the country in towns with few or no financial facilities. They provide ATMs and a counter service, as well as dedicated rooms for "community bankers" from individual banks for customers' more complicated issues.

Prosper Frome hopes that by setting up a Post Office the financial hub should be able to provide similar services. Branches of the Post Office are often paid by banks to accept deposits and provide withdrawals on their behalf. Dr Boulton said this was particularly important for people and businesses that still deal in cash, and who currently face having to travel long distances for banking services.

Prosper Frome hopes to finance the scheme by renting out hot desk space to professionals such as accountants, solicitors and financial advisers. It would also signpost people to financial advice, offer mentoring for small businesses and third sector organisations, and help facilitate peer-to-peer lending. Dr Boulton said: "Not all citizens are comfortable with internet banking and both individuals and small businesses alike want to talk through loans and options and sometimes need a helpful hand in dealing with banking processes. "We are concerned for the elderly and vulnerable as well as focusing on business needs." Prosper Frome also hopes credit unions and organisations such as the Citizens' Advice Bureau will have a presence, and thinks the presence of a Post Office would help attract them.

Currently there is no timescale for when the hub might open, but it could take as little as 12 months to set up.

Prosper Frome needs to secure a premises as well as apply for authorisation to open a post office. Dr Boulton, a former town councillor whose remit was economic development, said: "We have done many things that are quite innovative [in Frome]. "It is a close-knit, integrated community, where people know each other and people know who to go to for advice and support." She continued: "In the bigger businesses, there are people with lots of pockets of financial expertise, so we are hopeful we can do something with this."

The leader of Frome Town Council, Lisa Merryweather-Millard, said the banking exodus has been a blow to the area. "There are people who don't use online banking, who use the banks to manage their bills, for financial literacy, and we have a lot of businesses who still deal in cash," she said. "We have a thriving live music scene, most of which deals in cash, so there is nowhere for them to take their money at the end of the business day.

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