Employee ownership finally gets the backing of the Government

After the "shares for rights" false start, will the Government get it right this time?

The current profile and success of employee ownership is unprecedented. Employee ownership is now being embraced as the most prominent alternative to the over-dominant PLC model.

Employee owned businesses are largely or fully owned by their workforces either through direct employee share holdings or shares held in Trust on behalf of and for the benefit of employees. Their workforces are very actively engaged in the management and development of their businesses. And economic competitiveness and high performance are a central part of the DNA of employee owned companies. The compelling success stories of employee owned businesses such as Clansman, Unipart and Arup demonstrate the very special nature of employee ownership.

More and more politicians, businesses and service commissioners are realising the contribution that employee ownership is making and can make to the growth agenda and to the delivery of world class public services. It is a realisation that employee owned organisations tend to achieve higher productivity, greater levels of innovation, better resilience to economic turbulence and have more fulfilled workers who are less stressed than colleagues in conventionally owned organisations. It is also a recognition that employee ownership works financially as over the last decade and more, investments in shares in employee owned businesses have considerably outperformed those in conventionally owned businesses.

This current interest in employee ownership has been reflected over recent weeks in two important initiatives.

Firstly the Treasury has completed its review into the taxation of employee ownership in the UK. Its conclusions, announced as part of the Chancellor’s Autumn Statement, are significant. The Autumn Statement argues that employee ownership is an important part of the UK growth agenda and explicitly confirms it as a business model that the Government supports. This is a powerful and unique endorsement of a part of the economy that contributes more than £30bn to UK GDP each year.

The Statement also undertakes to bring to the table the resources and expertise of the Treasury to work with other parts of Government to increase the number of employee owned businesses, to implement a package of simplifications to existing employee share schemes and to keep under review the possibility of introducing at the time of the next Budget further tax incentives to promote employee ownership.

Secondly, Government has accepted in full all of the recommendations for how to grow employee ownership in the UK that are contained in the recently completed Nuttall Review into the barriers to such growth.

The inaugural meeting of the group that is now accountable for the implementation of these recommendations, chaired by the relevant Minister Jo Swinson MP, has just taken place. This development brings a realistic prospect that a new future for employee ownership that many of us have been driving for will arrive. A future in which there is far greater awareness of employee ownership options, there is a simplification of those options and there is better access to finance and advice for businesses that want to implement and or fund employee ownership.

These two reviews, the Treasury and Nuttall Reviews, are ones that the Employee Ownership Association successfully pushed very hard for.

Their outcomes and the attendant commitments mark another important step along the way towards employee ownership becoming a central part of industrial policy, part of the mainstream.

Employee ownership is currently growing at an annual rate of around 10 per cent. Interest in it within business communities and amongst public service commissioners is increasing daily. The number of funders and advisors competent to engage in employee ownership is on the rise. These are exciting times.  The challenge ahead is to build on this momentum in pursuit of the big picture – 10 per cent of UK GDP delivered by employee ownership by 2020. With the right will and skill this is perfectly possible.

The Co-operative society circa 1929. Photograph: Getty Images

Iain Hasdell is the chief executive of the Employee Ownership Association the voice of employee owned businesses in the UK and a member of the Mutuals Task Force.

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Let's turn RBS into a bank for the public interest

A tarnished symbol of global finance could be remade as a network of local banks. 

The Royal Bank of Scotland has now been losing money for nine consecutive years. Today’s announcement of a further £7bn yearly loss at the publicly-owned bank is just the latest evidence that RBS is essentially unsellable. The difference this time is that the Government seems finally to have accepted that fact.

Up until now, the government had been reluctant to intervene in the running of the business, instead insisting that it will be sold back to the private sector when the time is right. But these losses come just a week after the government announced that it is abandoning plans to sell Williams & Glynn – an RBS subsidiary which has over 300 branches and £22bn of customer deposits.

After a series of expensive delays and a lack of buyer interest, the government now plans to retain Williams & Glynn within the RBS group and instead attempt to boost competition in the business lending market by granting smaller "challenger banks" access to RBS’s branch infrastructure. It also plans to provide funding to encourage small businesses to switch their accounts away from RBS.

As a major public asset, RBS should be used to help achieve wider objectives. Improving how the banking sector serves small businesses should be the top priority, and it is good to see the government start to move in this direction. But to make the most of RBS, they should be going much further.

The public stake in RBS gives us a unique opportunity to create new banking institutions that will genuinely put the interests of the UK’s small businesses first. The New Economics Foundation has proposed turning RBS into a network of local banks with a public interest mandate to serve their local area, lend to small businesses and provide universal access to banking services. If the government is serious about rebalancing the economy and meeting the needs of those who feel left behind, this is the path they should take with RBS.

Small and medium sized enterprises are the lifeblood of the UK economy, and they depend on banking services to fund investment and provide a safe place to store money. For centuries a healthy relationship between businesses and banks has been a cornerstone of UK prosperity.

However, in recent decades this relationship has broken down. Small businesses have repeatedly fallen victim to exploitative practice by the big banks, including the the mis-selling of loans and instances of deliberate asset stripping. Affected business owners have not only lost their livelihoods due to the stress of their treatment at the hands of these banks, but have also experienced family break-ups and deteriorating physical and mental health. Others have been made homeless or bankrupt.

Meanwhile, many businesses struggle to get access to the finance they need to grow and expand. Small firms have always had trouble accessing finance, but in recent decades this problem has intensified as the UK banking sector has come to be dominated by a handful of large, universal, shareholder-owned banks.

Without a focus on specific geographical areas or social objectives, these banks choose to lend to the most profitable activities, and lending to local businesses tends to be less profitable than other activities such as mortgage lending and lending to other financial institutions.

The result is that since the mid-1980s the share of lending going to non-financial businesses has been falling rapidly. Today, lending to small and medium sized businesses accounts for just 4 per cent of bank lending.

Of the relatively small amount of business lending that does occur in the UK, most is heavily concentrated in London and surrounding areas. The UK’s homogenous and highly concentrated banking sector is therefore hampering economic development, starving communities of investment and making regional imbalances worse.

The government’s plans to encourage business customers to switch away from RBS to another bank will not do much to solve this problem. With the market dominated by a small number of large shareholder-owned banks who all behave in similar ways (and who have been hit by repeated scandals), businesses do not have any real choice.

If the government were to go further and turn RBS into a network of local banks, it would be a vital first step in regenerating disenfranchised communities, rebalancing the UK’s economy and staving off any economic downturn that may be on the horizon. Evidence shows that geographically limited stakeholder banks direct a much greater proportion of their capital towards lending in the real economy. By only investing in their local area, these banks help create and retain wealth regionally rather than making existing geographic imbalances worce.

Big, deep challenges require big, deep solutions. It’s time for the government to make banking work for small businesses once again.

Laurie Macfarlane is an economist at the New Economics Foundation