More than 300 bank branches have closed or reduced access to customers in Scotland within the space of three years, new figures suggest.
According to statistics published by the Federation of Small Businesses (FSB), large banks closed local branches at a rate of seven a month between 2016 and 2018.
The FSB now forecasts the number of branches across the country will soon drop below 800, compared to 1,123 branches in 2013.
Towns including Lochgelly in Fife, Gourock in Inverclyde and Dornoch in the Highlands have been left without any banks at all as a result of the closures.
It is also estimated around 30 cash machines in Scotland close each month.
In a report published by FSB, Scotland’s biggest banks have been urged to roll out shared banking hubs, starting with the largest towns with no local facilities.
The FSB also recommends a UK-wide regulator should be given explicit responsibility for protecting access to notes and coins.
As well as focusing on bank closures across the country, the report also calls for a £90 million annual investment in hard-pressed Scottish towns from the Scottish National Investment Bank and the UK Stronger Towns Fund.
It is hoped the funding would help provide a boost to town centres which have seen a rise in the number of vacant units in recent years.
According to figures published in the FSB report, 414 stores have closed across the country between 2016 and 2019.
The findings suggest that since 2014, 10.9% of town centre properties have been vacant across the country.
Andrew McRae, FSB’s Scotland policy chairman, said there must be action from the Scottish and UK Governments, as well as from big banks, to help support those living in towns.
“More people in Scotland live in towns than cities,” he said.
“That’s why governments in Edinburgh and London must make a generational investment in our towns to overcome their current challenges and prepare them for how we’ll work and live in the future.
“Following FSB campaigning, last year the Scottish Government announced extra funding to boost Scottish towns.
“We need to build on this initiative because inclusive growth can’t only be a priority for city dwellers.”
He added: “After the wave of recent closures, we need to rethink how we use our high streets.
“A new commission should investigate the barriers to bringing vacant properties back into use, even if that means turning offices into housing, or department stores into art galleries.
“Similarly, we need to make it cheap and easy for independent businesses to take up high street property and we believe a standard small business lease could be part of this solution.”
Mr McRae said banks are the “worst offenders” when it comes to closures.
“At the very least, they should make good on their promise to roll out shared banking hubs and we’d urge them to start with the largest bank-less towns,” he said.
“Many smaller businesses are at the forefront of using new technologies to boost their efficiency, productivity and most importantly sales.
“But others may be behind the curve. Scottish Enterprise should develop a programme to give local traders a helping hand.”
Economy Secretary Derek Mackay said: “We have already established a £50 million capital Town Centre Fund for 2019-20 to help local authorities to stimulate growth and investments, which encourage town centres to diversify and flourish.
“This is part of a wider boost to the economy, which includes £5 billion in capital investment to grow and modernise Scotland’s infrastructure, as well as wider support for businesses.
“That includes the most generous package of business rates reliefs in the UK – worth more than £750 million in 2019-20, up from £732 million in 2018-19 – while over 90% of properties in Scotland will pay a lower poundage than they would elsewhere in the UK.
“Our Small Business Bonus has lifted more than 100,000 properties out of rates altogether.”
He added: “Meanwhile, the Scottish National Investment Bank will ensure we are delivering for the economy by supporting ambitious businesses and important infrastructure projects.
“The Building Scotland Fund (BSF) supports the development of housing industrial and commercial property, and business-led research and development and to date has agreed investments of £94 million.
“We are also supporting businesses through the Scottish Growth Scheme and 201 companies have received £135 million of investment to date.”