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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The Tories are the zombie party: with an ageing, falling membership, still they stagger on to victory

One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.”

All football clubs have “ultras” – and, increasingly, political parties do, too: although, in the case of political parties, their loudest and angriest supporters are mostly found on the internet. The SNP got there first: in the early days of email, journalists at the Scotsman used to receive bilious missives complaining about its coverage – or, on occasion, lack of coverage – of what the Scottish National Party was up to. The rest soon followed, with Ukip, the Labour Party and even the crushed Liberal Democrats now boasting a furious electronic horde.

The exception is the Conservative Party. Britain’s table-topping team might have its first majority in 18 years and is widely expected in Westminster to remain in power for another decade. But it doesn’t have any fans. The party’s conference in Manchester, like Labour’s in Brighton, will be full to bursting. But where the Labour shindig is chock-full of members, trade unionists and hangers-on from the charitable sector, the Conservative gathering is a more corporate affair: at the fringes I attended last year, lobbyists outnumbered members by four to one. At one, the journalist Peter Oborne demanded to know how many people in the room were party members. It was standing room only – but just four people put their hands up.

During Grant Shapps’s stint at Conservative headquarters, serious attempts were made to revive membership. Shapps, a figure who is underrated because of his online blunders, and his co-chair Andrew Feldman were able to reverse some of the decline, but they were running just to stand still. Some of the biggest increases in membership came in urban centres where the Tories are not in contention to win a seat.

All this made the 2015 election win the triumph of a husk. A party with a membership in long-term and perhaps irreversible decline, which in many seats had no activists at all, delivered crushing defeats to its opponents across England and Wales.

Like José Mourinho’s sides, which, he once boasted, won “without the ball”, the Conservatives won without members. In Cumbria the party had no ground campaign and two paper candidates. But letters written by the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, were posted to every household where someone was employed making Trident submarines, warning that their jobs would be under threat under a Labour government. This helped the Tories come close to taking out both Labour MPs, John Woodcock in Barrow and Furness and Jamie Reed in Copeland. It was no small feat: Labour has held Barrow since 1992 and has won Copeland at every election it has fought.

The Tories have become the zombies of British politics: still moving though dead from the neck down. And not only moving, but thriving. One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.” His Conservative counterparts also believe that their rivals are out of power for at least a decade.

Yet there are more threats to the zombie Tories than commonly believed. The European referendum will cause endless trouble for their whips over the coming years. And for all there’s a spring in the Conservative step at the moment, the party has a majority of only 12 in the Commons. Parliamentary defeats could easily become commonplace. But now that Labour has elected Jeremy Corbyn – either a more consensual or a more chaotic leader than his predecessors, depending on your perspective – division within parties will become a feature, rather than a quirk, at Westminster. There will be “splits” aplenty on both sides of the House.

The bigger threat to Tory hegemony is the spending cuts to come, and the still vulnerable state of the British economy. In the last parliament, George Osborne’s cuts fell predominantly on the poorest and those working in the public sector. They were accompanied by an extravagant outlay to affluent retirees. As my colleague Helen Lewis wrote last week, over the next five years, cuts will fall on the sharp-elbowed middle classes, not just the vulnerable. Reductions in tax credits, so popular among voters in the abstract, may prove just as toxic as the poll tax and the abolition of the 10p bottom income-tax rate – both of which were popular until they were actually implemented.

Added to that, the British economy has what the economist Stephen King calls “the Titanic problem”: a surplus of icebergs, a deficit of lifeboats. Many of the levers used by Gordon Brown and Mervyn King in the last recession are not available to David Cameron and the chief of the Bank of England, Mark Carney: debt-funded fiscal stimulus is off the table because the public finances are already in the red. Interest rates are already at rock bottom.

Yet against that grim backdrop, the Conservatives retain the two trump cards that allowed them to win in May: questions about Labour’s economic competence, and the personal allure of David Cameron. The public is still convinced that the cuts are the result of “the mess” left by Labour, however unfair that charge may be. If a second crisis strikes, it could still be the Tories who feel the benefit, if they can convince voters that the poor state of the finances is still the result of New Labour excess rather than Cameroon failure.

As for Cameron, in 2015 it was his lead over Ed Miliband as Britons’ preferred prime minister that helped the Conservatives over the line. This time, it is his withdrawal from politics which could hand the Tories a victory even if the economy tanks or cuts become widely unpopular. He could absorb the hatred for the failures and the U-turns, and then hand over to a fresher face. Nicky Morgan or a Sajid Javid, say, could yet repeat John Major’s trick in 1992, breathing life into a seemingly doomed Conservative project. For Labour, the Tory zombie remains frustratingly lively. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide