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

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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle