Food retail group the Co-op has plans to help communities so that they can avoid becoming "cash deserts".

It said it will offer free ATMs in every store where possible, and if not offer free cashback services or Post Office counter withdrawals where customers are dependent on the payment method.

Co-op said its commitments would counter high street bank closures, removal of free ATMs and the rise of cashless retailing.

New research by the grocery chain into the spending habits of 16 million shoppers found a north-south divide in the use of cash, with many disadvantaged communities relying on notes and coins to budget during the cost-of-living crisis.

The Way We Pay report found that cash use had fallen from 65% to 28% since 2016.

The Leader: Cash use continues to decline overall in the UK (PA)Cash use continues to decline overall in the UK (PA)

However, it remained as high as 44% in many areas, particularly areas in Northern Ireland, the Northeast, Wales and Scotland.

These areas had also been hit hard by bank closures, poverty and high unemployment levels.

Despite London topping the list of locations where contactless payments were most common, some boroughs still saw one in three shoppers paying by cash.

Matt Hood, co-managing director of Co-op Food, said: “Insight and data within our latest report indicates that while contactless has become the preferred way for many to pay, cash still remains a key payment method that the public looks to for confidence and security.

“As a community-led convenience retailer it’s important to us that while we have the correct technology that offers convenience, we also have the in-store facilities that offer vital services to customers and communities that continue to use cash.

“The clear north-south divide highlights the inequality issues that are still apparent in society today, despite the government’s levelling up agenda. By introducing this charter and making these commitments we can continue to protect and provide easy access to cash, particularly in those communities that rely on it most.”

Co-op currently has around 2,300 free-to-use ATMs, alongside 230 Post Office counters, across its stores.

It has also introduced OneBanks concessions in three Scottish communities that are more reliant on cash, allowing customers to access banking services no matter who they bank with.