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What replaces HSBC and Barclays after UK exit from safe deposit boxes?

9 December 2015

The drive by UK banks to withdraw from safe custody continues unabated. Christopher Barrow of Metropolitan Safe Deposits examines the options for customers wanting secure storage for their valuables.

HSBC and Barclays now have no customers with safe deposit boxes in their UK branches. The process of withdrawal started in earnest five years ago when the two banks ceased to offer the service to new customers. In parallel, local branches all over the country started to phase out the service to existing customers. The next stage of withdrawal was to restrict the service to private banking customers in a small number of regional branches. Until recently, HSBC offered the service at six branches, four in central London and two in Manchester. Barclays had only its large facility in Park Lane and a small vault in Brighton. All these safe deposit facilities have now officially closed, though deadlines have been extended for a small number of overseas customers at Barclays Park Lane and HSBC Holborn.

The other major UK banks have either reduced or closed their safe deposit services. RBS (including Natwest) and Lloyds withdrew from offering safe custody to new customers in 2011/12, but have continued to provide a service, albeit shrinking, to existing customers. All their branches are reportedly full. None of the other UK retail banks of any size, Halifax (owned by Lloyds), Bank of Scotland (owned by Lloyds), Santander, Co-operative, Nationwide, Virgin Money, TSB Bank and Tesco Bank, provide any safe custody services in the UK. A handful of small banks does offer a safe deposit box service in the UK in a limited number of locations. These include the Strand branch of Coutts (an upmarket private bank owned by Natwest), State Bank of India (at five branches including Leicester and Birmingham), Bank of East Asia (focusing on the Chinese community in Manchester) and Metro Bank (a new bank with branches in London and South-East England).

Outside of the banking sector, there is a small but growing group of independent safe deposit box providers. Excluding solicitors who are sometimes able to store documents (such as house deeds and wills), the UK independent sector can be broken down into three different sub-sectors or owner types, namely department stores, specialist dealers and stand-alone businesses. The first category (department stores) comprises the London-based Harrods and Selfridges, which have vaults in Knightsbridge and Oxford Street, respectively. These are both full. The second category of specialist dealers includes silver dealers (notably Chancery Lane Safe Deposit, which is part of the London Silver Vaults), jewellery shops & diamond dealers (two small vaults in Hatton Garden, one of which is now in liquidation following a robbery) and bullion dealers (such as Sharps Pixley).

The third category is the vault that is independent of any other business. These stand-alone operators are small in number, but growing. The oldest independent firms in the UK are Metropolitan Safe Deposits (Knightsbridge and St John’s Wood), Balthorne Safe Deposit Centres (Hampstead and Edgware), Bank House Lockers (Wembley), Birmingham Safety Deposit (Edgbaston) and St James’s Safe Deposit (Manchester and Leeds). Since Metropolitan acquired London Safe Deposit (Regent Street) in 2012, the number of established independent players has consolidated to just five businesses in four UK cities.

In response to the continuing withdrawal of the UK banks, there has been an explosion of interest in opening up new vaults all over the country. They have started springing up in areas of concentrated Asian communities, such as Hounslow and Southall (in London), Birmingham, Leicester and Manchester. An internet search for independent safe deposit box centres or vaults will “reveal” a large number of these new facilities. The reality, however, is somewhat different. They do not all exist. Some websites indicate multiple locations to increase internet traffic to their site. Another marketing ploy is to launch multiple websites with “Opening Soon” signs. Not all these openings will materialise.

A new safe deposit vault will, almost inevitably, take a number of years to reach profitability, especially if the owner is new to the business. Customers from banks will want a fair degree of reassurance that an independent facility is not only secure, but is also a sustainable business. Generally speaking, it is very difficult for small vaults to be commercially viable. Scale is important since revenues are required to cover the high fixed overheads that a professionally-run vault demands. In order to cover those overheads, a large vault needs to secure a few thousand customers before it is able to break even. That may require several years of working capital, on top of the substantial amounts of capital needed to build or convert a professional vault.

Customers transferring their valuables from a bank branch to an independent vault will be looking for reassurances on various fronts. It is important to know the identity of the owners and directors of the business. If this information is not provided on the company’s website, then customers should make enquiries and satisfy themselves that the business is on a sound financial footing, as well as committed to strong ethical values and high standards of regulatory compliance. Furthermore, not only should the levels of security (obviously) and customer service be high, but so should the quality of staff and the professional training that they receive.

There is, of course, one other option for exiting bank customers and that is to keep their valuables at home. For most families, the undeniable fact is that there will be no independent vaults near them. Installing a high-quality home safe and a sophisticated alarm system is a sensible precaution against the average, opportunistic burglar. However, it may not protect families from the more sophisticated burglar. One suggestion that does make sense is to store everyday items at home and to keep the more valuable possessions (heirlooms, gold bars, coins, important documents etc) in a secure vault.

For those who are fortunate enough to live or work close to an independent vault, they should be pleasantly surprised at the affordability of safe deposit boxes. They are invariably more expensive than what banks used to charge (for their heavily subsidised service), but, with a box costing as little as £8-9 per month including insurance, it is a small price to pay for keeping valuables safe. Other benefits of switching from banks to private companies are the personalised service and long opening hours 7 days a week.

With the financial world a long way off recovering from the crash of 2008, it is highly likely that the remaining banks will continue to cut back. The corollary of a shrinking number of bank vaults is an expanding independent safe deposit box sector. That process will continue, but it will be slow in view of the high levels of funding and customer confidence that are required. Customers should have a very positive experience switching from a bank branch to a private vault, but they should always perform their due diligence before entrusting their valuables to a third party.

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