Hidden charges: the next big scandal for banks?

The high cost of banks' lack of transparency.

 

If there’s one thing that the banks have probably had enough of, it’s talk of transparency. After all, their recent run-ins with transparency have been largely unwelcome and revealed some hideous schemes – LIBOR-rigging, for example, and the mis-selling of PPI and interest-rate insurance. No wonder they fear daylight.

In many senses, they’re not in the clear yet. Banks and investment management companies are mysterious, opaque and occasionally downright deceptive about the fees they charge to wrangle your money. One woman is as mad as hell about it and isn’t going to take it any more.

Gina Miller, who with her husband, Alan, runs SCM Private, a wealth management firm, has commissioned a survey as part of her True and Fair Campaign, which shows that 92 per cent of people think that investment managers should be legally obliged to provide information about charges.

Gina has spoken out angrily: “It is completely indefensible that two-thirds of people buying investment products do not know how much they are paying in fees and charges.

“But what is worse is the fact that while we call for transparency and 100 per cent disclosure, the industry continues to hide under a thin rhetorical veil promising more disclosure, not full disclosure, and wraps itself in opaque, ill-defined guidelines.”

The government has already gone to certain lengths to try to ensure transparency with its Retail Distribution Review. Investment managers no longer get paid by the people whose products they sell (a clear inducement to favour those who pay more, not whose products are better) but rather by clients. Clients should never not know what they’re paying.

Yet Gina Miller goes beyond this, to hidden fees and charges from the manager: half a per cent to use foreign currencies here, vastly inflated fees to execute trades there.

This may seem like an issue affecting the few – and who has more sympathy for them? As the True and Fair website points out, however, anyone with savings or a pension is likely to be subject to these sneaky fees, too.

Could fees and charges be the next big scandal for the banks? It’s unlikely – the behaviour is bad, not criminal – but they certainly hurt many people and the more light shone on them, the better for us all.

Fee-fi-fo-fum: banks' fees remain opaque and confusing. Photograph: Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images

Josh Spero is the editor of Spear's magazine.

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The tale of Battersea power station shows how affordable housing is lost

Initially, the developers promised 636 affordable homes. Now, they have reduced the number to 386. 

It’s the most predictable trick in the big book of property development. A developer signs an agreement with a local council promising to provide a barely acceptable level of barely affordable housing, then slashes these commitments at the first, second and third signs of trouble. It’s happened all over the country, from Hastings to Cumbria. But it happens most often in London, and most recently of all at Battersea power station, the Thames landmark and long-time London ruin which I wrote about in my 2016 book, Up In Smoke: The Failed Dreams of Battersea Power Station. For decades, the power station was one of London’s most popular buildings but now it represents some of the most depressing aspects of the capital’s attempts at regeneration. Almost in shame, the building itself has started to disappear from view behind a curtain of ugly gold-and-glass apartments aimed squarely at the international rich. The Battersea power station development is costing around £9bn. There will be around 4,200 flats, an office for Apple and a new Tube station. But only 386 of the new flats will be considered affordable

What makes the Battersea power station development worse is the developer’s argument for why there are so few affordable homes, which runs something like this. The bottom is falling out of the luxury homes market because too many are being built, which means developers can no longer afford to build the sort of homes that people actually want. It’s yet another sign of the failure of the housing market to provide what is most needed. But it also highlights the delusion of politicians who still seem to believe that property developers are going to provide the answers to one of the most pressing problems in politics.

A Malaysian consortium acquired the power station in 2012 and initially promised to build 517 affordable units, which then rose to 636. This was pretty meagre, but with four developers having already failed to develop the site, it was enough to satisfy Wandsworth council. By the time I wrote Up In Smoke, this had been reduced back to 565 units – around 15 per cent of the total number of new flats. Now the developers want to build only 386 affordable homes – around 9 per cent of the final residential offering, which includes expensive flats bought by the likes of Sting and Bear Grylls. 

The developers say this is because of escalating costs and the technical challenges of restoring the power station – but it’s also the case that the entire Nine Elms area between Battersea and Vauxhall is experiencing a glut of similar property, which is driving down prices. They want to focus instead on paying for the new Northern Line extension that joins the power station to Kennington. The slashing of affordable housing can be done without need for a new planning application or public consultation by using a “deed of variation”. It also means Mayor Sadiq Khan can’t do much more than write to Wandsworth urging the council to reject the new scheme. There’s little chance of that. Conservative Wandsworth has been committed to a developer-led solution to the power station for three decades and in that time has perfected the art of rolling over, despite several excruciating, and occasionally hilarious, disappointments.

The Battersea power station situation also highlights the sophistry developers will use to excuse any decision. When I interviewed Rob Tincknell, the developer’s chief executive, in 2014, he boasted it was the developer’s commitment to paying for the Northern Line extension (NLE) that was allowing the already limited amount of affordable housing to be built in the first place. Without the NLE, he insisted, they would never be able to build this number of affordable units. “The important point to note is that the NLE project allows the development density in the district of Nine Elms to nearly double,” he said. “Therefore, without the NLE the density at Battersea would be about half and even if there was a higher level of affordable, say 30 per cent, it would be a percentage of a lower figure and therefore the city wouldn’t get any more affordable than they do now.”

Now the argument is reversed. Because the developer has to pay for the transport infrastructure, they can’t afford to build as much affordable housing. Smart hey?

It’s not entirely hopeless. Wandsworth may yet reject the plan, while the developers say they hope to restore the missing 250 units at the end of the build.

But I wouldn’t hold your breath.

This is a version of a blog post which originally appeared here.

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