Bank of Dave: Money to Burnley

What can we learn from one man's attempts to set up a bank of his own?

9pm on Channel 4 tonight sees the first episode in a two-part documentary called Bank of Dave. It follows Burnley businessman David Fishwick as he attempts to open his own bank to serve the people and businesses of his home town.

The programme will undoubtedly provide more than a few salutatory lessons for British banks. I know this, not because I have been fortunate to witness an early screening but because I have read David's book Bank of Dave: How I Took on the Banks, which chronicles his endeavour.

David’s attempt at setting up a bank and turning a profit in 180 days is fascinating, and makes one wonder whether we need more Banks of Dave. I think we do.

The total start-up costs for Dave’s bank, including premises and equipment, were £9,000 and his weekly overheads came to £396. Some will argue that Dave’s costs are not indicative of what is required, and in some respects they are right. Banks probably need more than one laptop and a couple of notebooks. Even then, Dave shines an unforgiving light on the high overheads, including inflated salaries and cumbersome, out-dated IT systems, that burden many British banks.

Dave also shows that nowadays banks no longer have a monopoly on the services they provide. Dave's bank does almost everything a high-street bank does: it makes loans, takes deposits and even makes investments in property, stocks and shares. But because he wasn’t granted a banking licence by the FSA he can't call his bank a "bank" or say that he takes "deposits".

Increasingly people are choosing to avoid banks when accessing financial services. Dave himself gets advice from Giles Andrews, CEO of peer-to-peer lender Zopa. The government and regulators should not stand in the way of innovation and regulators could do more to ensure that people feel confident using new financial services that meet appropriate standards.

Dave’s most important insight, and this comes on page one of the book, is that "all banks are about people". This is something forgotten by many of Britain's large banks. Dave meets the people he lends money to, and he knows the property he invests in. His decisions are based on more than just credit scores or the value of the security. A bank that adopted Dave’s practices would have lower default rates, higher customer satisfaction, and greater ability to cross-sell products to loyal customers. The recent growth of Metrobank and Handselsbanken in Britain is testament to this.

The Bank of Dave not only casts many of Britain’s banks in a dim light but, perhaps inadvertently, it also demonstrates one of the inherent weaknesses in our banking system. Dave promises to guarantee every deposit in his bank with his own money. He also makes it clear that "we wouldn’t be lending what we hadn’t got", not leveraging the assets of his bank.

In these two respects Dave’s bank is relatively unique, and therein lies the dilemma. People want security but many also want leverage with the risk and reward this entails. Regulators would love it if all deposits in every bank were guaranteed by their owners but this would come at a price. Leverage and debt is now a sin under the government’s austerity drive but one of the commonest criticisms of the banks is that they are not lending.

In preparing to set up his bank, Dave meets David Buik, a market analyst, who tells him: "you’re not going to stop the banking system blowing up from time to time". Dave disagrees; his bank would be 100 per cent guaranteed. As Britain looks to reform its banking system it would do well to learn from Dave, but some of the lessons may be harder to swallow than others.

Dave Fishwick, in his bank. Photograph: Channel 4

Selling Circuits Short: Improving the prospects of the British electronics industry by Stephen L. Clarke and Georgia Plank was released yesterday by Civitas. It is available on PDF and Amazon Kindle

Photo: Martin Whitfield
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Labour MP for East Lothian Martin Whitfield: "I started an argument and ended up winning an election"

The former primary school teacher still misses home. 

Two months ago, Martin Whitfield was a primary school teacher in Prestonpans, a small town along the coast from Edinburgh. Then he got into an argument. It was a Saturday morning shortly after the snap election had been called, and he and other members of the local Labour party began discussing a rumour that the candidate would be an outsider.

“I started an argument that this was ridiculous, we couldn’t have a candidate helicoptered in,” he recalls. He pointed out that one of the main issues with the Scottish National Party incumbent, the economist and journalist George Kerevan, was that he was seen as an outsider.

“I kept arguing for an hour and a half and people started gently moving away,” he jokes. “About two days later I was still going on, and I thought enough’s enough.” 

He called Iain Gray, the Scottish Labour veteran, who interrupted him. “He said, 'Right Martin, are you going to put up or shut up?’ So I filled in the forms.

"Then I had to have a very interesting conversation with my wife.”

One successful election campaign later, he is sitting in the airy, glass-roofed atrium of Westminster’s Portcullis House. Whitfield has silver hair, glasses, and wears a Labour-red tie with his shirt. He looks every bit the approachable primary school teacher, and sometimes he forgets he isn’t anymore. 

I ask how the school reacted to his election bid, and he begins “I have”, and then corrects himself: “There is a primary four class I had the pleasure to teach.” The children wanted to know everything from where parliament was, to his views on education and independence. He took unpaid leave to campaign. 

“Actually not teaching the children was the hardest thing,” he recalls. “During the campaign I kept bumping into them when I was door-knocking.”

Whitfield was born in Newcastle, in 1965, to Labour-supporting parents. “My entire youth was spent with people who were socialists.”

His father was involved in the Theatre Workshop, founded by the left-wing director Joan Littlewood. “We were part of a community which supported each other and found value in that support in art and in theatre,” he says. “That is hugely important to me.” 

He trained as a lawyer, but grew disillusioned with the profession and retrained as a teacher instead. He and his wife eventually settled in Prestonpans, where they started a family and he “fought like mad” to work at the local school. She works as the marketing manager for the local theatre.

He believes he won his seat – one of the first to be touted as a possible Labour win – thanks to a combination of his local profile, the party’s position on independence and its manifesto, which “played brilliantly everywhere we discussed it”. 

It offered hope, he says: “As far as my doorstep discussion in East Lothian went, some people were for and against Jeremy Corbyn, some people were for and against Kezia Dugdale, but I didn’t find anyone who was against the manifesto.”

Whitfield’s new job will mean long commutes on the East Coast line, but he considers representing the constituency a “massive, massive honour”. When I ask him about East Lothian, he can’t stop talking.

“MPs do tend to say ‘my constituency’s a microcosm’, but it really is Scotland in miniature. We have a fishing industry, crabs and lobsters, the agricultural areas – the agricultural soil is second to none.” The area was also historically home to heavy industry. 

After his first week in Westminster, Whitfield caught the train back to Scotland. “That bit when I got back into East Lothian was lovely moment,” he says. “I was home.”

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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