News: Closure of another local bank branch widens ‘digital gap’ in Eastern Bay of Plenty  


The announcement by the BNZ that they will be closing their Ōpōtiki branch comes as a disappointment to the local community and threatens to further grow the social inequality found in the region, according to Toi EDA.

Toi EDA’s General Manager of Strategy, Karl Gradon, said that the Eastern Bay of Plenty was surging ahead in terms of economic growth, due in large measure to significant investments supported through the Provincial Development Unit. But the region still faces some big social challenges.

“This is the most recent bank closure in Ōpōtiki and there are very real concerns around the lack of digital connectivity and digital literacy in the region, with the nearest BNZ bank for many East Coast residents now located in Whakatāne. That means for some people, it is a two hour drive each way simply to do banking. And internet banking is not a magic bullet with internet coverage patchy at best in most parts of the East Coast,” Mr Gradon said.  

The lack of digital connectivity in the Eastern Bay became very apparent during the COVID-19 lockdown, with students and workers in remote areas feeling the brunt of this lack of service. Toi EDA is concerned that by further reducing the local physical infrastructure, such as banks, the gap between those that have Internet access and those that don’t will only grow.
Toi EDA is currently undertaking a strategic review of the digital infrastructure found across the Eastern Bay and is working with partners to provide affordable access to the internet, regardless of where you live in the region.

Ian Morton, GM Operations at Toi EDA, said that by building on the existing school and marae digital infrastructure, and working together with various community groups and providers, there is significant opportunity to cost-effectively extend the coverage to the vast majority of the population.

“This isn’t just an issue on the east coast, although it illustrates the issue very plainly. And it is important to acknowledge some of the excellent work being done, particularly by libraries, councils and agencies running services like the DORA digital buses that have recently visited the area. But there are bigger issues at play here.

“Banks, like any other business, will always make their own commercial decisions about the cost-effectiveness of branches in less-populated areas. But areas like the Eastern Bay are starting to feel economic growth and significant investment in jobs and infrastructure for the first time in many years. So to have these sorts of services leave at this moment is really disappointing.

“We’d like to see more central government support to ensure that remote communities like the Coast don’t fall further behind the rest of the region and country in the digital divide. We need to ensure that the local services, digital literacy and digital connectivity are supported where they are needed the most,” Mr Morton said.