If Wonga are trying to muscle in to the business market, we need a British Investment Bank more than ever

Payday lenders, not content with squeezing individuals, are now going after businesses too.

Anybody who lives in London and/or uses London buses will know that those ghastly Wonga adverts have been replaced. By Wonga adverts. Though this time, for small businesses.

Wonga for Business offers loans of £3,000 to £10,000 which are available for terms of between one and 52 weeks. Costs vary with an interest rate of between 0.3 per cent and two per cent which seems competitive if repaid early, but a 52 week loan, according to Tim Harford, at 2 per cent could work out to have attached to it an interest rate of 280 per cent per year.

Another estimate, this from Sharlene Goff (the FT’s retail banking correspondent), estimated that the largest loan (£10,000) for the longest term (a year) would rack up almost £11,000 in charges.

I exchanged emails with a spokesperson from the company during the week, hoping to find out some tangible figures for how well the new venture is going. All I was told, sadly, was that there have been thousands of applications thus far, and good feedback from people who have been approved, but due to the commercial nature of the company all evidence was kept under wraps.

OK so the suspicion is that it is all bluster. A commercial company with no evidence to show off saying that they're doing great to put the willies in their competitors. But I'm not so sceptical, unfortunately.

Wonga have come to be recognised as another unsavoury payday lender, and for good reason in my opinion, albeit one that is slightly more public-facing than the rest (and this says an awaful lot about the rest). Though what I've come to learn about this financial product is that it often fills in and exploits the gaps where mainstream services are falling behind.

This is the case with payday loans to individuals. And it is the case for businesses as well. Research in November by the Federation of Small Businesses showed that between 2007 and 2010 there was a 24 per cent fall in successful loan applications, while more than half of the small firms that applied for an overdraft last year were rejected.

Even in the good times things weren't sparkly. As Duncan Weldon at the Touchstone Blog has pointed out, "around 85 per cent of bank lending [had been] going to either financial companies or property" even in better financial times.

Competition in this market is rather flat as well. In 2011 the Independent Commission on Banking identified that the largest four banks account for 85 per cent of SME current accounts.

So though Wonga are playing on a very real problem in the state of play in the financial sector, the real issue lies in the failure of banks to lend to small and medium businesses – surely a vital element in our economic recovery.

But what is in our armoury? What tools can we use? It certainly didn't go unnoticed this week that Ed Miliband used the opportunity at the Co-operative Bank HQ to talk up the merits of a British Investment Bank – on the day that the Labour party published a report by Nicholas Tott, a former city lawyer, to make that very case.

Although, this case has been made again and again – why should it have taken this long? One of its most active proponents is Lord (Robert) Skideslsky. In one of his many cases for a national investment bank he exemplifies the European Investment Bank (the European Union's public development bank).

EU governments that own the EIB, in contributing an equivalent sum of £32bn, alongside the bank itself borrowing a further equivalent to £271bn from private capital markets, the EU governments were able to finance investments worth more than the equivalent of £304bn including for ports from Barcelona to Warsaw, the TGV network in France and the world-leading offshore wind industry here in Britain, creating jobs along the way.

Another example, in Germany, is the Kreditanstalt fur Wiederafbau (KfW), a second tier bank, provides cheap loans (liquidity loans at low rates and long maturities) to SMEs using the commercial banks as intermediaries. In 2010, KfW financed loans worth a record €28.5bn for SMEs, creating 66,000 jobs in addition to the 1.3m jobs it helped maintain (which has been on Labour's mind since Lord Mandelson made it the model de jour).

Why has it been most pertinant that Miliband raise the spectre of a British Investment Bank at the time he did (even though he, and others, commissioned the report by Nicholas Tott in December 2011)? Because as Skideslsky notes:

“The financial crisis has left the impression that the main purpose of the banking sector is to enrich a tiny elite at the expense of taxpayers.”

We may all understand in principle that a functioning financial system is crucial to the national economy, but we can hardly attest to this happening in practice (consider, if you will, the NEF calculation that for every £1 paid to “elite” city bankers £7 of social value is destroyed, as well as the damning verdict of Adair Turner, the chairman of the UK Financial Services Authority, who views the past decade of financial innovation as mostly "socially useless").

In short, a British Investment Bank is something that could gain cross-party consensus, provide a real solution to the lending shortfall, build up SMEs, jobs and growth – and allow entrepreneurs to avoid the lending freeze or risking it all with expensive business loans from Wonga.

As a parting shot the Wonga spokesperson told me that we can expect to see “more products from us before the end of the year, but I can't give you any hints I'm afraid”. Perhaps if we are diligent enough we can spot the financial shortfalls before Wonga get there first.  

A payday lender. Photograph: Getty Images

Carl Packman is a writer, researcher and blogger. He is the author of the forthcoming book Loan Sharks to be released by Searching Finance. He has previously published in the Guardian, Tribune Magazine, The Philosopher's Magazine and the International Journal for Žižek Studies.
 

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Air pollution: 5 steps to vanquishing an invisible killer

A new report looks at the economics of air pollution. 

110, 150, 520... These chilling statistics are the number of deaths attributable to particulate air pollution for the cities of Southampton, Nottingham and Birmingham in 2010 respectively. Or how about 40,000 - that is the total number of UK deaths per year that are attributable the combined effects of particulate matter (PM2.5) and Nitrogen Oxides (NOx).

This situation sucks, to say the very least. But while there are no dramatic images to stir up action, these deaths are preventable and we know their cause. Road traffic is the worst culprit. Traffic is responsible for 80 per cent of NOx on high pollution roads, with diesel engines contributing the bulk of the problem.

Now a new report by ResPublica has compiled a list of ways that city councils around the UK can help. The report argues that: “The onus is on cities to create plans that can meet the health and economic challenge within a short time-frame, and identify what they need from national government to do so.”

This is a diplomatic way of saying that current government action on the subject does not go far enough – and that cities must help prod them into gear. That includes poking holes in the government’s proposed plans for new “Clean Air Zones”.

Here are just five of the ways the report suggests letting the light in and the pollution out:

1. Clean up the draft Clean Air Zones framework

Last October, the government set out its draft plans for new Clean Air Zones in the UK’s five most polluted cities, Birmingham, Derby, Leeds, Nottingham and Southampton (excluding London - where other plans are afoot). These zones will charge “polluting” vehicles to enter and can be implemented with varying levels of intensity, with three options that include cars and one that does not.

But the report argues that there is still too much potential for polluters to play dirty with the rules. Car-charging zones must be mandatory for all cities that breach the current EU standards, the report argues (not just the suggested five). Otherwise national operators who own fleets of vehicles could simply relocate outdated buses or taxis to places where they don’t have to pay.  

Different vehicles should fall under the same rules, the report added. Otherwise, taking your car rather than the bus could suddenly seem like the cost-saving option.

2. Vouchers to vouch-safe the project’s success

The government is exploring a scrappage scheme for diesel cars, to help get the worst and oldest polluting vehicles off the road. But as the report points out, blanket scrappage could simply put a whole load of new fossil-fuel cars on the road.

Instead, ResPublica suggests using the revenue from the Clean Air Zone charges, plus hiked vehicle registration fees, to create “Pollution Reduction Vouchers”.

Low-income households with older cars, that would be liable to charging, could then use the vouchers to help secure alternative transport, buy a new and compliant car, or retrofit their existing vehicle with new technology.

3. Extend Vehicle Excise Duty

Vehicle Excise Duty is currently only tiered by how much CO2 pollution a car creates for the first year. After that it becomes a flat rate for all cars under £40,000. The report suggests changing this so that the most polluting vehicles for CO2, NOx and PM2.5 continue to pay higher rates throughout their life span.

For ClientEarth CEO James Thornton, changes to vehicle excise duty are key to moving people onto cleaner modes of transport: “We need a network of clean air zones to keep the most polluting diesel vehicles from the most polluted parts of our towns and cities and incentives such as a targeted scrappage scheme and changes to vehicle excise duty to move people onto cleaner modes of transport.”

4. Repurposed car parks

You would think city bosses would want less cars in the centre of town. But while less cars is good news for oxygen-breathers, it is bad news for city budgets reliant on parking charges. But using car parks to tap into new revenue from property development and joint ventures could help cities reverse this thinking.

5. Prioritise public awareness

Charge zones can be understandably unpopular. In 2008, a referendum in Manchester defeated the idea of congestion charging. So a big effort is needed to raise public awareness of the health crisis our roads have caused. Metro mayors should outline pollution plans in their manifestos, the report suggests. And cities can take advantage of their existing assets. For example in London there are plans to use electronics in the Underground to update travellers on the air pollution levels.

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Change is already in the air. Southampton has used money from the Local Sustainable Travel Fund to run a successful messaging campaign. And in 2011 Nottingham City Council became the first city to implement a Workplace Parking levy – a scheme which has raised £35.3m to help extend its tram system, upgrade the station and purchase electric buses.

But many more “air necessities” are needed before we can forget about pollution’s worry and its strife.  

 

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.