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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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

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

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