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Cost of cash worth every penny in bush, bank probe told

After the Black Summer bushfires tore through rural Victoria, one town banded together to buy a new firefighting tanker.

The fundraiser in East Gippsland was a cash collection, something that may not have been possible without a local bank.

Rural councils have told a Senate inquiry examining regional bank closures that cash and face-to-face transactions are central to the social fabric in their towns.

"Communities have to semi-resource their own emergency services and the fundraising in these settings is unsurprisingly not Apple Pay - it's cash," East Gippsland mayor Mark Reeves told the first public hearing in Sale on Thursday.

"Cash handling is expensive, we're told, but the benefits of volunteering and fundraising are priceless.

"They glue our resilient communities together."

The inquiry is examining the impact of accelerated bank closures across country Australia, where more than 650 branches have shut since 2017.

The major banks have said closures are because of declining foot traffic and a significant shift to digital services, particularly since COVID-19.

But regional communities told the hearing local bank branches were crucial for development, population growth and business confidence.

Online banking was not feasible in areas where power and digital connectivity were not reliable, Mr Reeves said.

"Banks need to know that we in regional Australia are important,'' he said.

"We live and thrive here. And we urge banks to reciprocate and invest in us and our regions."

Westpac chief customer engagement officer Ross Miller acknowledged not all customers were ready to move online.

"For a small minority, going into a bank branch is still preferred and necessary,'' he said.

"This means while there are fewer people using our branches, the absence of one is to have a significant impact on some."

Sale was set to lose its Westpac branch until the bank agreed to the Senate committee's request to postpone closures during the inquiry.

Mr Miller said the bank notified the Wellington Shire Council of the shut down via email rather than in-person.

The executives met with the council ahead of the hearing, but there were no immediate plans to visit other towns where closures were postponed.

"You make billions of dollars in profits a year, why can't you travel to country towns and talk to them about closures?," committee chair Senator Matt Canavan asked.

Mr Miller said the bank would take time to engage with councils during the postponements.

Commonwealth Bank also halted shut downs, but National Australia Bank (NAB) and ANZ did not.

NAB retail executive Krissie Jones said chief executive Ross McEwan was aware of the request but wanted to go ahead with a planned restructure.

"Our CEO is committed to being where our customers are," Ms Jones said.

The Finance Sector Union told the inquiry closures were based on data rather than conversations with communities and consultation was minimal.

The inquiry is due to report back in December.