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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Q&A: What are tax credits and how do they work?

All you need to know about the government's plan to cut tax credits.

What are tax credits?

Tax credits are payments made regularly by the state into bank accounts to support families with children, or those who are in low-paid jobs. There are two types of tax credit: the working tax credit and the child tax credit.

What are they for?

To redistribute income to those less able to get by, or to provide for their children, on what they earn.

Are they similar to tax relief?

No. They don’t have much to do with tax. They’re more of a welfare thing. You don’t need to be a taxpayer to receive tax credits. It’s just that, unlike other benefits, they are based on the tax year and paid via the tax office.

Who is eligible?

Anyone aged over 16 (for child tax credits) and over 25 (for working tax credits) who normally lives in the UK can apply for them, depending on their income, the hours they work, whether they have a disability, and whether they pay for childcare.

What are their circumstances?

The more you earn, the less you are likely to receive. Single claimants must work at least 16 hours a week. Let’s take a full-time worker: if you work at least 30 hours a week, you are generally eligible for working tax credits if you earn less than £13,253 a year (if you’re single and don’t have children), or less than £18,023 (jointly as part of a couple without children but working at least 30 hours a week).

And for families?

A family with children and an income below about £32,200 can claim child tax credit. It used to be that the more children you have, the more you are eligible to receive – but George Osborne in his most recent Budget has limited child tax credit to two children.

How much money do you receive?

Again, this depends on your circumstances. The basic payment for a single claimant, or a joint claim by a couple, of working tax credits is £1,940 for the tax year. You can then receive extra, depending on your circumstances. For example, single parents can receive up to an additional £2,010, on top of the basic £1,940 payment; people who work more than 30 hours a week can receive up to an extra £810; and disabled workers up to £2,970. The average award of tax credit is £6,340 per year. Child tax credit claimants get £545 per year as a flat payment, plus £2,780 per child.

How many people claim tax credits?

About 4.5m people – the vast majority of these people (around 4m) have children.

How much does it cost the taxpayer?

The estimation is that they will cost the government £30bn in April 2015/16. That’s around 14 per cent of the £220bn welfare budget, which the Tories have pledged to cut by £12bn.

Who introduced this system?

New Labour. Gordon Brown, when he was Chancellor, developed tax credits in his first term. The system as we know it was established in April 2003.

Why did they do this?

To lift working people out of poverty, and to remove the disincentives to work believed to have been inculcated by welfare. The tax credit system made it more attractive for people depending on benefits to work, and gave those in low-paid jobs a helping hand.

Did it work?

Yes. Tax credits’ biggest achievement was lifting a record number of children out of poverty since the war. The proportion of children living below the poverty line fell from 35 per cent in 1998/9 to 19 per cent in 2012/13.

So what’s the problem?

Well, it’s a bit of a weird system in that it lets companies pay wages that are too low to live on without the state supplementing them. Many also criticise tax credits for allowing the minimum wage – also brought in by New Labour – to stagnate (ie. not keep up with the rate of inflation). David Cameron has called the system of taxing low earners and then handing them some money back via tax credits a “ridiculous merry-go-round”.

Then it’s a good thing to scrap them?

It would be fine if all those low earners and families struggling to get by would be given support in place of tax credits – a living wage, for example.

And that’s why the Tories are introducing a living wage...

That’s what they call it. But it’s not. The Chancellor announced in his most recent Budget a new minimum wage of £7.20 an hour for over-25s, rising to £9 by 2020. He called this the “national living wage” – it’s not, because the current living wage (which is calculated by the Living Wage Foundation, and currently non-compulsory) is already £9.15 in London and £7.85 in the rest of the country.

Will people be better off?

No. Quite the reverse. The IFS has said this slightly higher national minimum wage will not compensate working families who will be subjected to tax credit cuts; it is arithmetically impossible. The IFS director, Paul Johnson, commented: “Unequivocally, tax credit recipients in work will be made worse off by the measures in the Budget on average.” It has been calculated that 3.2m low-paid workers will have their pay packets cut by an average of £1,350 a year.

Could the government change its policy to avoid this?

The Prime Minister and his frontbenchers have been pretty stubborn about pushing on with the plan. In spite of criticism from all angles – the IFS, campaigners, Labour, The Sun – Cameron has ruled out a review of the policy in the Autumn Statement, which is on 25 November. But there is an alternative. The chair of parliament’s Work & Pensions Select Committee and Labour MP Frank Field has proposed what he calls a “cost neutral” tweak to the tax credit cuts.

How would this alternative work?

Currently, if your income is less than £6,420, you will receive the maximum amount of tax credits. That threshold is called the gross income threshold. Field wants to introduce a second gross income threshold of £13,100 (what you earn if you work 35 hours a week on minimum wage). Those earning a salary between those two thresholds would have their tax credits reduced at a slower rate on whatever they earn above £6,420 up to £13,100. The percentage of what you earn above the basic threshold that is deducted from your tax credits is called the taper rate, and it is currently at 41 per cent. In contrast to this plan, the Tories want to halve the income threshold to £3,850 a year and increase the taper rate to 48 per cent once you hit that threshold, which basically means you lose more tax credits, faster, the more you earn.

When will the tax credit cuts come in?

They will be imposed from April next year, barring a u-turn.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.