The changing nature of the British bank holiday

28 April, 2015

This coming Monday (6 May) millions of people across the country will metaphorically down their tools and enjoy an extended weekend, courtesy of the Spring Bank Holiday.


Often caricatured as rain-sodden, motorway-congested, engineering-work plagued days of unproductiveness, bank holidays are no matter held in great affection by the majority of employees and remain as quintessentially a British tradition as you can get.


Initially passed 144 years ago, the Bank Holidays Act of 1871 guaranteed bank employees four days off per year in addition to Christmas Day and Good Friday. In an era that spawned Ebenezer Scrooge, any form of employment right flexibility was to be lauded.


But, according to the BBC, the traditional British bank holiday is about to change. With the number of branches remaining open set to exceed 100 for the first time, the 24-hour nature of global financial services in 2015 is clearly no respecter of 19th century tradition.


Interestingly, RBS, Barclays, NatWest and Metro Bank (who between them will open the largest number of branches) say this is being driven by customer demand. Behind this demand, say RBS are the busy lives led by 21st century consumers. Jane Howard, Managing Director of branch and private banking for RBS was quoted as saying that while people are off work, they often use these spare days to catch up with their financial obligations, such as sorting out mortgages and other personal financial matters.


In this regard the banks are probably correct. All service providers are driven by the changing habits of their customers. Despite some controversy and a concerted campaign devised by certain religious groups, the Sunday Trading Act in 1994 was passed and ensured that shops could remain open seven days a week. The majority of consumers have never looked back.


Perhaps though, there are wider issues at play. The Telegraph for instance, reported last year on research conducted by the Centre for Economics and Business Research (CEBR) which found each bank holiday costs the economy £2.3bn. More pertinently, an estimated 45 per cent of businesses suffer as a result. For an economy in which growth has fallen to 0.3 per cent, this is a strong burden to bear.


Whether or not this is the thin end of the wedge and bank holidays in their traditional sense become a thing of the past will ultimately be down to consumer and economic demand.  Traditionalists need not despair however; we will still, no doubt be left with rain, road works and railway replacements, even if the banks remain open.