Banks tried to hide their bonuses, but now the game is up. What next?

Britain has always valued a sense of fair play. It is time to demand a fair banking system.

2011 was a year of constraint and contrition for the banking sector. Bonus pools were reduced, balance sheets slimmed down and high profile bankers heroically waived their bonuses.

Or so the banks' PR machines would have had us believe. Last Friday, as analysts trawled through Barclays and RBS's annual report and Lloyds' pay statement, a very different picture emerged from that painted by the banks.

Bob Diamond's pay packet for 2011 could be as much as £17.7 million. The head of state-backed RBS' investment banking division, John Hourican, was handed a package worth £7.4 million. And the Chief Executive of Lloyds netted £3.5 million. All in all Barclays, Lloyds and RBS paid out in excess of £90 million to top executives in 2011.

There is a clear injustice in a sector which is implicitly and explicitly subsidised by the taxpayer awarding itself bloated rewards at a time when the public are enduring austerity cuts, a squeeze on real incomes, and rising unemployment.

But the public outrage taps into something deeper. After all, the British sense of fair play has always been premised on there being haves and have-nots.

Public anger taps into the stark fact that the banking system is failing to fulfil some of its basic functions because the industry is grotesquely skewed towards socially unproductive activities that allow a small elite to extract vast wealth to the detriment of the many.

Despite a financial crisis, a £1.2 trillion bailout and ongoing public outcry, it can still seem like there is no viable alternative to business as usual. But it is worth reminding ourselves that this is not universal: the British banking system stands out from its US and European counterparts.

Firstly, the UK banking sector is one of the most concentrated in the world. In the retail sector six large national banks account for 92 per cent of personal current accounts, 85 per cent of mortgages, and 88 per cent of small business accounts .

Secondly, it is one of the least diverse in terms of the types and functions of financial providers. Whereas in the UK, the big four dominate the high street, in Germany a wide range of local and mutually owned banks have a 70 per cent share of the market for loans and deposits.

Thirdly, it is the largest in size relative to our economy. Assets of UK banks are almost six times GDP, compared to the US where they are roughly equal.

These features enabled the City to generate huge profits in the boom years, but they are also root causes of its inability to serve the needs of households and businesses.

The financial crisis exploded the myth that profits booked in the financial sector means wealth for the UK. Figures from the IMF show that despite the fact that, in relative terms, the UK banking sector is six times the size of its US equivalent, it generates the same amount of total tax revenue -- less than a paltry 2 per cent.

Now the long-term effects this British exceptionalism are clear for all to see. We have a banking system unable to allocate credit to viable businesses, provide bank accounts to low-income households, or even keep our money safe.

According to the New Economics Foundation, the UK lags other countries in achieving universal access to financial products and services, with 1.5m adults still lacking a current account. The branch network continues to shrink with a 44 per cent reduction since 1990 leaving more communities unbanked.

And Britain's small businesses struggle more than their European and American counterparts to access credit, with some 370,000 SMEs failing to secure loan finance from mainstream financial institutions in 2011 alone.

But what comes next?

Martin Kettle recently argued that the mood of the nation is to muddle along. The public just want to get back to normal with as little fuss as possible. Whilst it may be true that there is little appetite for a revolutionary overthrow of liberal capitalism, there is clear evidence that there is growing interest in a different way of doing things.

The alternative financial sector has flourished in the aftermath of the financial crisis -- filling the gaps where the big banks are simply unable to provide.

Households and businesses are becoming increasingly dependent on these alternatives. Unfortunately their rise is paralleled -- in fact dwarfed by the increase in doorstop and payday lenders which only goes to demonstrate the size of the unmet market demand.

These alternative institutions are still a tiny part of the financial ecosystem. But the sector is at a tipping point. It now needs to work together to create a narrative which takes it beyond a niche industry. It needs to the let the public know that there is alternative out there, and why its better for them.

That's why we have launched Move Your Money UK, a campaign encouraging people to move their money to ethical, local or mutual financial providers. There is appetite for change. We may not be in a revolutionary moment, but the public are no longer willing to accept business as usual from our banking sector and are looking for something better.

Louis Brooke is a co-founder of Move Your Money UK. Follow the campaign on Twitter @moveyourmoneyuk and Facebook.

Louis Brooke is a spokesperson for Move Your Money UK, a not for profit campaign group, promoting alternatives to the big banks. He is also communications manager for London Rebuilding Society, and co-founder and chairman of educational resource company now>press>play.

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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.