The end of free UK current accounts?

The end of free checking gathers pace.

On 24 May, Bank of England executive director for banking supervision Andrew Bailey said that the "myth" of free banking enjoyed by customers when not overdrawn made it hard to link costs to products and services received.  UK current account customers will not warm to his argument or its likely implications but the High Street banks will welcome the argument to end free checking if-in-credit.

It is a trend already being endured by customers in Ireland. If you think that the banking crisis was bad in the UK, spare a thought for customers across the Irish Sea. Following a sector wide crisis in 2008 – the cost to the Irish taxpayer so far is about €70bn, give or take - six Irish owned banks have become two so called ‘pillar banks’. The big two (pillar) banks left standing – Bank of Ireland and Allied Irish Banks - are now rewarding taxpayers for their support by ramping up fees for everyday banking for a sizeable proportion of the country.

Bank of Ireland kicked things off by raising fees affecting almost one-half of its 1m customers in March. AIB has come out in sympathy and will follow suit with the end of universal free checking from 28 May. Only Royal Bank of Scotland-owned Irish subsidiary, Ulster Bank, now offers universal free current accounts. It does not however rule out following Bank of Ireland and AIB.

Ulster Bank spokesperson Debbie McCaughey said:

"I can confirm that Ulster Bank does not charge a monthly fee on standard current accounts. As with all our products and services, we keep our current account offering under continual review."

So we now have the irony of the UK government bailed-out RBS Irish subsidiary standing to win over account switchers from the two Irish government-backed lenders, Bank of Ireland and AIB. There is one further irony. Bank of Ireland has not (at least not yet) ended universal free if in credit current accounts for its customers based in Northern Ireland.

In fairness to Bank of Ireland, a lot of its customers can get around the monthly current account charges. If, for example, they deposit at least €3,000 into their current account and make nine debit payments from that account using the telephone or online banking over a three month charging period, they will avoid charges. Students and customers aged over 60 are also exempt. In addition, customers who maintain a permanent credit balance of at least €3,000 (a relatively small percentage of clients) qualify for free banking. Customers not qualifying for free banking will pay €0.28 per transaction or a flat fee of €11.40 per quarter for up to 90 transactions with excess transactions charged at €0.28 each.

AIB’s fees strategy is worse – much worse. AIB spokesperson Helen Leonard told me that the fees change “is driven by the need to enhance cost recovery across all AIB businesses, including the provision of money transmission services, the cost of which is significant.” So from 28th May AIB will seek to recover some of the losses it incurred following the crash by imposing current fees for customers who do not maintain a minimum daily credit balance of €2,500 for the full fee quarter on a personal current account.That will take in 60 per cent of its current account customer base. The 40 per cent of exempt customers will, in the main, be the other exempt customer categories: students, recent graduates and clients aged over 60. The 60 per cent of AIB customers affected will be charged €0.20 per debit card transaction while writing a cheque or withdrawing cash at an AIB branch will cost €0.30 per transaction.

In a statement, Bernard Byrne, director of personal and business banking at AIB, said:

"Free banking offerings across the industry have changed significantly in recent times. While this was a difficult decision to make, nonetheless it is a necessary one if we are to continue to create the conditions in which we can become a strong and viable entity again."

The fees bombshell for Irish bank customers follows an incessant stream of bad news in the local banking sector. Around 6,000 banking staff in Ireland have left the industry in the past three years. Thousands more are set to follow with AIB looking to shed another 2,500 jobs; Bank of Ireland will let up to another 1,000 staff go under a voluntary redundancy scheme agreed with trades union The Irish Bank Officials Association.

Ulster Bank is also bloodletting and will lay off 950 staff in the short to medium term.UK High Street lenders will be watching intently to see if Bank of Ireland and AIB can make the current account fees stick.With such limited competition on the Irish Main Street, there is every chance that Irish customers –or at least those who do not switch to Ulster Bank - will just grin and bear it.

In the UK, there are already 10m chargeable current accounts, with customers paying an average of £185 in fees per year.That is already worth big bucks to UK banks: about £1.8bn in fees last year across the sector.But such accounts are termed packaged accounts (or added value accounts, as banks prefer to call them) and typically offer a bundled range of incentives such as mobile phone insurance and car insurance, other preferential financial services including overdraft, personal loan or mortgage, as well as non-financial products and services.

There were approximately 54m active current accounts in the UK in 2011 and packaged current accounts made up about 17 per cent of the UK retail banking market. The number of charged for current accounts on offer in the UK (69) has more than doubled from the 33 on the market just five years ago and since late 2009 has exceed the number of free in-credit current accounts on the market. Thus far, no UK bank has gone for broke and made the decision to start charging for all current accounts for fear of losing market share. With encouraging noises off from Andrew Bailey – and a bank sector enthusiastic about finding new ways to charge for services currently not charged for - that day may not be far off.

Douglas Blakey is the editor of Retail Banker International.

Bank of Ireland: Photograph: Getty Images

Douglas Blakey is the editor of Retail Banker International

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North Yorkshire has approved the UK’s first fracking tests in five years. What does this mean?

Is fracking the answer to the UK's energy future? Or a serious risk to the environment?

Shale gas operation has been approved in North Yorkshire, the first since a ban introduced after two minor earthquakes in 2011 were shown to be caused by fracking in the area. On Tuesday night, after two days of heated debate, North Yorkshire councillors finally granted an application to frack in the North York Moors National Park.

The vote by the Tory-dominated council was passed by seven votes to four, and sets an important precedent for the scores of other applications still awaiting decision across the country. It also gives a much-needed boost to David Cameron’s 2014 promise to “go all out for shale”. But with regional authorities pitted against local communities, and national government in dispute with global NGOs, what is the wider verdict on the industry?

What is fracking?

Fracking, or “hydraulic fracturing”, is the extraction of shale gas from deep underground. A mixture of water, sand and chemicals is pumped into the earth at such high pressure that it literally fractures the rocks and releases the gas trapped inside.

Opponents claim that the side effects include earthquakes, polluted ground water, and noise and traffic pollution. The image the industry would least like you to associate with the process is this clip of a man setting fire to a running tap, from the 2010 US documentary Gasland

Advocates dispute the above criticisms, and instead argue that shale gas extraction will create jobs, help the UK transition to a carbon-neutral world, reduce reliance on imports and boost tax revenues.

So do these claims stands up? Let’s take each in turn...

Will it create jobs? Yes, but mostly in the short-term.

Industry experts imply that job creation in the UK could reflect that seen in the US, while the medium-sized production company Cuadrilla claims that shale gas production would create 1,700 jobs in Lancashire alone.

But claims about employment may be exaggerated. A US study overseen by Penn State University showed that only one in seven of the jobs projected in an industry forecast actually materialised. In the UK, a Friends of the Earth report contends that the majority of jobs to be created by fracking in Lancashire would only be short-term – with under 200 surviving the initial construction burst.

Environmentalists, in contrast, point to evidence that green energy creates more jobs than similar-sized fossil fuel investments.  And it’s not just climate campaigners who don’t buy the employment promise. Trade union members also have their doubts. Ian Gallagher, Secretary of Blackburn and District Trade Unions Council, told Friends of the Earth that: “Investment in the areas identified by the Million Climate Jobs Campaign [...] is a far more certain way of addressing both climate change and economic growth than drilling for shale gas.”

Will it deliver cleaner energy? Not as completely as renewables would.

America’s “shale revolution” has been credited with reversing the country’s reliance on dirty coal and helping them lead the world in carbon-emissions reduction. Thanks to the relatively low carbon dioxide content of natural gas (emitting half the amount of coal to generate the same amount of electricity), fracking helped the US reduce its annual emissions of carbon dioxide by 556 million metric tons between 2007 and 2014. Banning it, advocates argue, would “immediately increase the use of coal”.

Yet a new report from the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (previously known for its opposition to wind farm applications), has laid out a number of ways that the UK government can meet its target of 80 per cent emissions reduction by 2050 without necessarily introducing fracking and without harming the natural world. Renewable, home-produced, energy, they argue, could in theory cover the UK’s energy needs three times over. They’ve even included some handy maps:


Map of UK land available for renewable technologies. Source: RSPB’s 2050 Energy Vision.

Will it deliver secure energy? Yes, up to a point.

For energy to be “sustainable” it also has to be secure; it has to be available on demand and not threatened by international upheaval. Gas-fired “peaking” plants can be used to even-out input into the electricity grid when the sun doesn’t shine or the wind is not so blowy. The government thus claims that natural gas is an essential part of the UK’s future “energy mix”, which, if produced domestically through fracking, will also free us from reliance on imports tarnished by volatile Russian politics.

But, time is running out. Recent analysis by Carbon Brief suggests that we only have five years left of current CO2 emission levels before we blow the carbon budget and risk breaching the climate’s crucial 1.5°C tipping point. Whichever energy choices we make now need to starting brining down the carbon over-spend immediately.

Will it help stablise the wider economy? Yes, but not forever.

With so many “Yes, buts...” in the above list, you might wonder why the government is still pressing so hard for fracking’s expansion? Part of the answer may lie in their vested interest in supporting the wider industry.

Tax revenues from UK oil and gas generate a large portion of the government’s income. In 2013-14, the revenue from license fees, petroleum revenue tax, corporation tax and the supplementary charge accounted for nearly £5bn of UK exchequer receipts. The Treasury cannot afford to lose these, as evidenced in the last budget when George Osborne further subsidied North Sea oil operations through increased tax breaks.

The more that the Conservatives support the industry, the more they can tax it. In 2012 DECC said it wanted to “guarantee... every last economic drop of oil and gas is produced for the benefit of the UK”. This sentiment was repeated yesterday by energy minister Andrea Leadsom, when she welcomed the North Yorkshire decision and described fracking as a “fantastic opportunity”.

Dependence on finite domestic fuel reserves, however, is not a long-term economic solution. Not least because they will either run out or force us to exceed international emissions treaties: “Pensions already have enough stranded assets as they are,” says Danielle Pafford from 350.org.

Is it worth it? Most European countries have decided it’s not.

There is currently no commercial shale-gas drilling in Europe. Sustained protests against the industry in Romania, combined with poor exploration results, have already caused energy giant Chevron to pull out of the country. Total has also abandonned explorations in Denmark, Poland is being referred to the European Court of Justice for failing to adequately assess fracking’s impact, and, in Germany, brewers have launched special bottle-caps with the slogan “Nein! Zu Fracking” to warn against the threat to their water supply.

Back in the UK, the government's latest survey of public attitudes to fracking found that 44 per cent neither supported nor opposed the practice, but also that opinion is gradually shifting out of favour. If the government doesn't come up with arguments that hold water soon, it seems likely that the UK's fracking future could still be blasted apart.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.