Leader: Banks must become more accountable

A banking system is as fundamental to modern society as an electricity grid or a water network. Secure savings, fairly priced credit and safe, easy payments are now so basic to our daily lives that few of us protest when governments use our money to bail out a banking system in trouble.

In that sense, banking - commercial banking, at any rate - has become a utility. Like other utilities, it enjoys the privilege of implicit or explicit support from government and the taxpayer. In return, it must submit to more than usually vigilant regulation to ensure that it serves our purposes.

Whether they supply power or financial services, we require two big things from utilities - they must operate reliably and efficiently, and they must serve the needs of their customers. It's fair to ask whether British banking does either at the moment.

Clearly, if taxpayers have spent an astonishing £850bn (so far) to rescue it from collapse, the industry registers pretty low on the reliability scorecard. That's the equivalent of the lights going out for a year. This must never happen again. Yes, part of the solution lies in regulation. Tougher capital requirements, with sliding capital ratios to dampen lending in booms and ease it in bad times, are a sensible idea.

More importantly, regulators need to know what is going on and to be alert to the build-up of undue risk in the system. Regardless of who gets the job or how many parties share it, there must be a single lead regulator with which the buck definitively stops.

This crisis has not been precipitated entirely by plodding commercial bankers, though they remain lamentably addicted to loan book growth, come what may. They have been led by the nose by investment bankers, whose complex financial engineering has allowed them to move loans off balance sheet and continue feeding their lending habit. Investment banking is not commercial banking. It does different things and incurs different risks, which is why investment bankers don't think like commercial bankers. They aren't going to change their spots. So they shouldn't be subject to the same regulation as commercial banking, and shouldn't enjoy the same protection. And if they are separately regulated, they need to belong to separate entities.

Denied access to trading and advisory profits, commercial banks would feel more obliged to address the second of our requirements, and think more deeply about meeting customer needs. The row over bank charges illustrates a gap between expectations and delivery that needs closing.

More competition would help. Some believe that consumers will now choose to entrust their money only to untainted banks, such as those run by supermarket chains. However, the British public's record of inertia in switching banks suggests that change may need a nudge.

Age, size and lack of competition inhibit large-scale innovation, but UK banking badly needs a dose of it. Other mature industries such as telecoms and airlines have reinvented their offerings. Retail banking has merely replaced the bank manager with a computer.

The opportunities to remould an unsatisfactory industry don't come often. If we want attentive and responsive banking, now is the time to refocus bank behaviour and encourage more competition. The economist John Kay, for example, wants licensed, narrow, deposit-taking banks. Only they could call themselves "banks", with an independently owned payments system (like the National Grid) to which only they have access.

That is the direction in which the debate must run, rather than how best to restore the status quo ante. The banks, which have a powerful voice at court, say the industry is fine the way it is. But then they would, wouldn't they?

This article is taken from the New Statesman supplement Held To Account: What's next for UK Banking? sponsored by Barclays