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Free-to-use cash machines have been disappearing at a rapid rate across the UK, according to a study by Which?

Nearly 1,700 machines started charging for withdrawals in the first three months of the year, with the majority starting to charge in March, according to the consumer lobby group.

Cardtronics, which runs most of those, and fellow provider NoteMachine are both likely to charge at more machines.

That could mean the country losing 13% of its free ATMs in only a few months.

The changes come after a reduction in the fee operators receive from banks each time an ATM is used.

Link, which oversees ATMs, began to cut the fee, known as the interchange rate, last year. So far it has reduced the charge from 25p to 20p per withdrawal.

Link said at the time that the move was aimed at protecting the ATM network. It left the fee for free-to-use ATMs – which are 1km or more from the next nearest cash machine – unchanged.

ATM operators receive the interchange fee from banks each time one of their cash machines is used.

NoteMachine, which operates 7,000 cash machines across the UK, said the cut in the interchange rate meant it was considering introducing fees at up to 4,000 of its machines.

“Unless urgent action is taken to reduce the pressure on ATM operators by reversing the interchange fee reductions, NoteMachine will be forced to begin converting ATMs to surcharging,” said chief executive Peter McNamara.

Rival ATM machine operator Cardtronics has said it is likely to convert another 1,000 of its ATMs over the coming months. It said it “had been forced into charging a fee for cash withdrawals on some of our machines where Link’s cuts have left us with no choice”.

There were about 52,000 free cash machines in the country at the start of the year.

Gareth Shaw, head of money at Which?, said: “Communities are being stripped of free access to cash at an alarming rate that could hit the most vulnerable in our society the hardest, while denying millions of people free withdrawals.

“A regulator is desperately needed to get a grip of these rapid changes across the cash landscape and ensure all those still reliant on this important payment method aren’t suddenly shut out from accessing the cash they need in their daily lives.”