The end of free banking could be an opportunity for other financial institutions

Building societies and credit unions stand to benefit if we move towards a paid-for model.

While many of us start to recover from the shock revelation that charge-free bank accounts are a myth, and that banks have been incentivised to mis-sell other financial products for their loss-leaders, some financial institutions like building societies and credit unions are quietly looking forward to the end of free banking.

After the scandals that have hit banks over PPI misselling and the £9bn set aside to recompensate those who were its victims, bankers and regulators have shared a rare platform in agreeing that an end to free banking could prevent similar future episodes.

The argument goes that banks were only scheming because fees aren't being levelled towards customers for their accounts, and so inevitably it became necessary to cross-subsidise from one profitable bit of the operation to in-credit personal current accounts free of charge.

Indeed as the newly-appointed chairman of Barclays, Sir David Walker, has said: "Because banks are not charging, it drives them inexorably into this sort of position”.

The issue has been raised in parliament and will be raised again at the Parliamentary Commission on Banking Standards where bankers have already submitted evidence, highlighting free banking as one of the things that led to bad behaviour.

One of the practical problems that awaits this (some call it an inevitability) is if one bank makes the leap and starts charging, the likelihood is that their customers will run and go elsewhere. To be a renegade over this can promise a huge money loss, which undermines the point in doing it in the first place - some risks just don't come naturally to banks.

Of course the other problem is that if it became a trend among banks, nobody can promise against an outbreak in customer dissatisfaction. One of the concerns being raised is that for unethical banking, the general public is being asked to subsidise another income stream for Barclays, HSBC, RBS and Lloyds.

For Phillip Inman, economics correspondant of the Guardian and the Observer, this is like a pickpocket saying he was forced to steal wallets because he was denied other sources of income. The only way of stopping a naughty banker from selling you stuff you don't need, in other words, is by giving him money. One can understand the discontent at this twisted logic.

But from another angle some institutions are seeing an opportunity. While one of the appealing planks of David Cameron's big society was the building up of smaller financial institutions, realists could see the many market entry barriers for types like building socieities and credit unions.

While the mainstream is already occupied by big banks, it was discussed at the KPMG’s 22nd annual Building Societies Database recently that: “almost half of the UK’s 47 financial mutuals had increased their profit in the year to April 2012, and that they would benefit further from the end of free banking.”

This isn't the first time I've heard something similar. Speaking to someone recently who works close to the credit union industry, who preferred to go unidentified, they told me that Barclays' talk of transparent charging structures has made the prospect of credit union modernisation very interesting indeed.

Credit unions have always had such a structure, and if paid-for accounts led to more competition among smaller players then the notion of a credit union membership rise increases the chance of them lending more money, particularly to those who are currently having difficulties remaining creditworthy or are thinking about going to a payday lender.

Trouble is the paid-for model comes with many problems. Too many, perhaps. People don't want to be charged a fee. Customers may end up kicking up a fuss about who their banks lend to on the grounds that their fees subsidise them, which when trying to maintain an image of middle-class respectability, may see the number of creditworthy people diminish.

Though most of us do want more competition and for places like credit unions to have more relevance in the market. Some very complex conversations and arguments are going to be had over this subject, that much is for sure, but it is interesting to note that advocates for an end to free banking are not only the usual suspects alone.

A high street bank. 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.
 

GETTY
Show Hide image

North Yorkshire has approved the UK’s first fracking tests in five years. What does this mean?

Is fracking the answer to the UK's energy future? Or a serious risk to the environment?

Shale gas operation has been approved in North Yorkshire, the first since a ban introduced after two minor earthquakes in 2011 were shown to be caused by fracking in the area. On Tuesday night, after two days of heated debate, North Yorkshire councillors finally granted an application to frack in the North York Moors National Park.

The vote by the Tory-dominated council was passed by seven votes to four, and sets an important precedent for the scores of other applications still awaiting decision across the country. It also gives a much-needed boost to David Cameron’s 2014 promise to “go all out for shale”. But with regional authorities pitted against local communities, and national government in dispute with global NGOs, what is the wider verdict on the industry?

What is fracking?

Fracking, or “hydraulic fracturing”, is the extraction of shale gas from deep underground. A mixture of water, sand and chemicals is pumped into the earth at such high pressure that it literally fractures the rocks and releases the gas trapped inside.

Opponents claim that the side effects include earthquakes, polluted ground water, and noise and traffic pollution. The image the industry would least like you to associate with the process is this clip of a man setting fire to a running tap, from the 2010 US documentary Gasland

Advocates dispute the above criticisms, and instead argue that shale gas extraction will create jobs, help the UK transition to a carbon-neutral world, reduce reliance on imports and boost tax revenues.

So do these claims stands up? Let’s take each in turn...

Will it create jobs? Yes, but mostly in the short-term.

Industry insiders imply that job creation in the UK could rival that seen in the US, while the medium-sized production company Cuadrilla claims that shale gas production would create 1,700 jobs in Lancashire alone.

But claims about employment may be exaggerated. A US study overseen by Penn State University showed only one in seven of the jobs the industry forecast actually materialised. In the UK, a Friends of the Earth report contends that the majority of jobs to be created by fracking in Lancashire would only be short-term – with under 200 surviving the initial burst.

Environmentalists, in contrast, point to evidence that green energy creates more jobs than similar-sized fossil fuel investments.  And it’s not just climate campaigners who don’t buy the employment promise. Trade union members also have their doubts. Ian Gallagher, Secretary of Blackburn and District Trade Unions Council, told Friends of the Earth that: “Investment in the areas identified by the Million Climate Jobs Campaign [...] is a far more certain way of addressing both climate change and economic growth than drilling for shale gas.”

Will it deliver cleaner energy? Not as completely as renewables would.

America’s “shale revolution” has been credited with reversing the country’s reliance on dirty coal and helping them lead the world in carbon-emissions reduction. Thanks to the relatively low carbon dioxide content of natural gas (emitting half the amount of coal to generate the same amount of electricity), fracking helped the US reduce its annual emissions of carbon dioxide by 556 million metric tons between 2007 and 2014. Banning it, advocates argue, would “immediately increase the use of coal”.

Yet a new report from the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (previously known for its opposition to wind farm applications), has laid out a number of ways that the UK government can meet its target of 80 per cent emissions reduction by 2050 without necessarily introducing fracking and without harming the natural world. Renewable, home-produced, energy, they argue, could in theory cover the UK’s energy needs three times over. They’ve even included some handy maps:


Map of UK land available for renewable technologies. Source: RSPB’s 2050 Energy Vision.

Will it deliver secure energy? Yes, up to a point.

For energy to be “sustainable” it also has to be secure; it has to be available on demand and not threatened by international upheaval. Gas-fired “peaking” plants can be used to even-out input into the electricity grid when the sun doesn’t shine or the wind is not so blowy. The government thus claims that fracking is an essential part of the UK’s future “energy mix”, which, if produced domestically, will also free us from reliance on imports tarnished by volatile Russian politics.

But, time is running out. Recent analysis by Carbon Brief suggests that we are only have five years left of current CO2 emission levels before we blow the carbon budget and risk breaching the climate’s crucial 1.5°C tipping point. Whichever energy choices we make now need to starting brining down the carbon over-spend immediately.

Will it help stablise the wider economy? Yes, but not forever.

With so many “Yes, buts...” in the above list, you might wonder why the government is still pressing so hard for fracking’s expansion? Part of the answer may lie in their vested interest in supporting the wider industry.

Tax revenues from UK oil and gas generate a large portion of the government’s income. In 2013-14, the revenue from license fees, petroleum revenue tax, corporation tax and the supplementary charge accounted for nearly £5bn of UK exchequer receipts. The Treasury cannot afford to lose these, as evidenced in the last budget when George Osborne further subsidied North Sea oil operations through increased tax breaks.

The more that the Conservaitves support the industry, the more they can tax it. In 2012 DECC said it wanted to “guarantee... every last economic drop of oil and gas is produced for the benefit of the UK”. This is a sentiment that was repeated yesterday by energy minister Andrea Leadsom, when she welcomed the North Yorkshire decision as a “fantastic opportunity” for fracking.

Dependence on finite domestic fuel reserves, however, is not a long-term economic solution. Not least because of the question of their replacement once they eventually run out: “Pensions already have enough stranded assets as they are,” says Danielle Pafford from 350.org.

Is it worth it? Most European countries have decided it’s not.

There is currently no commercial shale-gas drilling in Europe. Sustained protests against the industry in Romania, combined with poor exploration results, have already caused energy giant Chevron to pull out of the country. Total has also abandonned explorations in Denmark, Poland is being referred to the European Court of Justice for failing to adequately assess fracking’s impact, and, in Germany, brewers have launched special bottle-caps with the slogan “Nein! Zu Fracking” to warn against the threat to their water supply.

Back in the UK, the government's latest survey of public attitudes to fracking found that 44 per cent neither supported nor opposed the practice, but also that opinion is gradually shifting out of favour. If the government doesn't come up with arguments that hold water soon, it seems likely that the UK's fracking future could still be blasted apart.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.