ATMs
Reuters

The number of free cash machines in Britain could be set for a drastic cuts, amid plans to overhaul the country's ATM network.

Link, Britain's largest ATM operator which runs approximately 70,000 machines, has unveiled a proposal that will see the fee charged to card issuers to allow customers to use their machines fall from 25p to 20p over the next four years.

The company said that the changes, which are due to come into effect in April, will help protect the nationwide network of free ATMs, which currently counts approximately 55,000 machines.

There are fears, however, that the plans would also see the number of machines cut. Link has insisted it remained committed to operate an extensive network of cash machines and that any reduction would likely be in areas with a high concentration of ATMs close to each other.

"Free access to cash is vital for UK consumers and Link intends to maintain this for many years to come," said Link chief executive John Howells.

However, Ron Delnevo, executive director of the ATM Industry Association, warned thousands of free-to-use cash machines could either start charging customers or they could disappear altogether.

"A unwarranted shake-up of Link will hit the most hard-up the heaviest - particularly the millions of people who rely on cash for day-to-day budgeting," he said.

Delnevo added it was likely the reduction would target "unprofitable machines", rather than areas with a high concentration, which could lead to "ATM deserts", where entire communities have no direct access to cash.

He also pointed out that there were approximately 22,000 independently operated and free-to-use ATMs countrywide, most of which were operating very efficiently.

"These kind of cuts will make a lot of these services uneconomical," he was quoted as saying by Sky News. "In theory, all of these are at risk."

Link defended its proposals, indicating the plans had been put forward following a drastic decline in demand for cash, as more and more consumers opted to use online payments and card payments instead.

The company pointed to figures from UK Finance, which forecast the number of cash payments would fall by 43% to 8.7 billion payments over the next decade.

According to data released by the British Retail Consortium in July, cards now account for over 50% of payments processed in the UK. The report added 2016 was also the first time debit cards overtook cash in terms of popularity, accounting for 42.6% of all transactions, while cash and coins made up 42.3% of the total, after slipping five percentage points.