If you want to live ethically, start with your bank account

Moving your money is an opportunity to make the banking system as a whole better, writes Co-operatives UK's Ed Mayo.

Do you have a bank account? If so, congratulations. You have a vote in what kind of economy the UK has moving forward.

This week is National Ethical Investment Week, an event which over recent years has become a great way to celebrate the mix of green and ethical funds open to those with the money to invest.

A bank account isn't usually considered as a classic investment product. But if we are going to improve the ethics of the world of finance, it is a good place to start.

To begin with, any money you have in your account is invested by your bank. It is not an investment that you see, but for every pound on deposit, your bank can lend a multiple of this in the wider economy. Taken together, as UK consumers, our bank accounts have money in credit at the end of a typical day of around £100bn.

A number of current accounts do now pay direct interest for the money you hold, even if it is still only a small proportion of conventional accounts that pay more than 0.5 per cent interest.

But there is another reason to consider where you hold your bank account, because it is the building block for the wider financial services sector. We can't complain that banks are less than fully ethical if we don't ourselves consider ethics when we choose who to bank with.

Current accounts are a cash cow for the big banks. One way or another, they make £152 out of every bank account they have. This is more than they earn from savings and credit cards put together. 

Current accounts are also something that most people have a choice over. There are 64 million bank accounts in the UK. So, where only around 15% of people are investors in the sense of putting money into stocks, shares and pooled funds, 90 per cent of us have a bank account and can have a say through our money.

The Move Your Money campaign has emerged this year as a cause célèbre. Launched in February 2012, the campaign calls on people to switch their account, current or savings, away from shareholder banks that helped to cause the economic crisis, and towards co-operative and mutual banks, such as credit unions and building societies.

Because they are not owned by external shareholders, they can put the interests of their customers first. Worldwide, customer-owned banks have been far safer than shareholder and state-owned banks over the last five years. No less importantly, your money is reinvested locally rather than going into the global carousel of bonuses and high finance. If you switch banks to an ethical bank, your money is being used for good – so it is not just fair to you but fair to others.

Since the campaign launched, around half a million people have switched accounts. The UK had long been the country with the lowest switching rate in Europe. More than the actions of any regulator, the Move Your Money campaign, in tune with the times, has changed that. And it is still early days.

Madeleine is one I know of many that have switched to the Co-operative Bank in recent months. "The online banking is different, but it all meets my needs and the switching was pretty simple." The switching process is far smoother than people may fear. You ask your new bank to set it in train and within 10 days of the application being approved, all your standing orders and arrangements should be transferred and up and running. 

Sandra has switched to Nationwide, one of fifty building societies still operating in the UK. She found that "banks are only interested if you have a lot of money and, as pensioners we don’t have a lot. But Nationwide was different. I know they want your money, I’m not saying they don’t, but they have more time for you, to explain the ins and outs."

Credit unions, which are financial co-operatives for savings and loans, are also among the providers that have benefited from switching as the larger credit unions now offer current accounts or debit cards that give access to ATM networks.

Ethical Investment should not just be about feeling good or having something to talk about at a dinner party but changing the way the financial system works. The call to move your money is a genuine and positive opportunity to make the banking system as a whole better.

Make it the one thing that you do this week.

Ed Mayo is Secretary General of Co-operatives UK

The Move Your Money campaign outside a Barclays. Photograph: Getty Images

Ed Mayo is Secretary General of Co-operatives UK

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The tale of Battersea power station shows how affordable housing is lost

Initially, the developers promised 636 affordable homes. Now, they have reduced the number to 386. 

It’s the most predictable trick in the big book of property development. A developer signs an agreement with a local council promising to provide a barely acceptable level of barely affordable housing, then slashes these commitments at the first, second and third signs of trouble. It’s happened all over the country, from Hastings to Cumbria. But it happens most often in London, and most recently of all at Battersea power station, the Thames landmark and long-time London ruin which I wrote about in my 2016 book, Up In Smoke: The Failed Dreams of Battersea Power Station. For decades, the power station was one of London’s most popular buildings but now it represents some of the most depressing aspects of the capital’s attempts at regeneration. Almost in shame, the building itself has started to disappear from view behind a curtain of ugly gold-and-glass apartments aimed squarely at the international rich. The Battersea power station development is costing around £9bn. There will be around 4,200 flats, an office for Apple and a new Tube station. But only 386 of the new flats will be considered affordable

What makes the Battersea power station development worse is the developer’s argument for why there are so few affordable homes, which runs something like this. The bottom is falling out of the luxury homes market because too many are being built, which means developers can no longer afford to build the sort of homes that people actually want. It’s yet another sign of the failure of the housing market to provide what is most needed. But it also highlights the delusion of politicians who still seem to believe that property developers are going to provide the answers to one of the most pressing problems in politics.

A Malaysian consortium acquired the power station in 2012 and initially promised to build 517 affordable units, which then rose to 636. This was pretty meagre, but with four developers having already failed to develop the site, it was enough to satisfy Wandsworth council. By the time I wrote Up In Smoke, this had been reduced back to 565 units – around 15 per cent of the total number of new flats. Now the developers want to build only 386 affordable homes – around 9 per cent of the final residential offering, which includes expensive flats bought by the likes of Sting and Bear Grylls. 

The developers say this is because of escalating costs and the technical challenges of restoring the power station – but it’s also the case that the entire Nine Elms area between Battersea and Vauxhall is experiencing a glut of similar property, which is driving down prices. They want to focus instead on paying for the new Northern Line extension that joins the power station to Kennington. The slashing of affordable housing can be done without need for a new planning application or public consultation by using a “deed of variation”. It also means Mayor Sadiq Khan can’t do much more than write to Wandsworth urging the council to reject the new scheme. There’s little chance of that. Conservative Wandsworth has been committed to a developer-led solution to the power station for three decades and in that time has perfected the art of rolling over, despite several excruciating, and occasionally hilarious, disappointments.

The Battersea power station situation also highlights the sophistry developers will use to excuse any decision. When I interviewed Rob Tincknell, the developer’s chief executive, in 2014, he boasted it was the developer’s commitment to paying for the Northern Line extension (NLE) that was allowing the already limited amount of affordable housing to be built in the first place. Without the NLE, he insisted, they would never be able to build this number of affordable units. “The important point to note is that the NLE project allows the development density in the district of Nine Elms to nearly double,” he said. “Therefore, without the NLE the density at Battersea would be about half and even if there was a higher level of affordable, say 30 per cent, it would be a percentage of a lower figure and therefore the city wouldn’t get any more affordable than they do now.”

Now the argument is reversed. Because the developer has to pay for the transport infrastructure, they can’t afford to build as much affordable housing. Smart hey?

It’s not entirely hopeless. Wandsworth may yet reject the plan, while the developers say they hope to restore the missing 250 units at the end of the build.

But I wouldn’t hold your breath.

This is a version of a blog post which originally appeared here.

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