When are we going to start supporting newer banks?

Local council proves hostile to new outlets.

Almost 1,000 bank branches have been shuttered in the UK since the banking crisis in 2008. If you check back over the past decade, it gets worse: around 1 in 5 branches have closed – a net reduction of more than 2,000 bank and building society outlets.

So one might expect local authorities would help new kids on the banking block, such as Metro Bank, open new outlets. Not in Richmond they don’t. Metro Bank is keen to open a store on a prime site in Richmond but has now been refused permission for the second time by the local council. No matter that the new bank store would create around 25 to 30 jobs and be open for 80 hours a week, 362 days a year. The London Borough of Richmond upon Thames would prefer to see a new Metro Bank store hidden up a side street as opposed to the prime site, corner location identified by the bank. I know that banks’ reputations have taken a hit of late but this is really a tad ridiculous.

It all comes to change of use. Current planning rules mean that banks are at a disadvantage when it comes to securing prime high street locations – such premises tend to be classified as A1. Bank branches are classified as A2 retail uses. When I spoke with Metro Bank CEO Craig Donaldson the other day, he was a bit miffed – and understandably so. He tells me that he is six months behind target.

He had expected to open 25 new stores by now, instead of the 19 outlets currently open. It is taking Metro Bank an average of six to 12 months and between £75k and £100k per site whenever it begins the process of developing a new store. He estimates that the bank has wasted close on £1m to date, simply to secure the necessary planning consents for its stores already opened. If Donaldson was opening an undertaker or a hairdresser or a dry cleaning outlet – all currently classified as A1 uses – he could skip the time consuming and expensive charade of obtaining the requisite change of use. The regulations are so antiquated that included within the list of A1 retail uses are cats-meat shops and tripe shops.

There was a time when it made sense to treat bank branch planning applications as a separate retail use. Bank branches tended to open only from 9am to 5pm Monday to Friday and represent dead retail space at weekends. Such restricted retail hours tend not to apply to the new challenger banks. The number of empty shops on UK high streets remains at a record high and the stats are not helped by the continued lack of economic growth and the ongoing change in shopping habits.

To date, the government’s efforts to revitalise the high street have been lacklustre. It roped in retail guru Mary "Queen of Shops" Portas; she prepared a report and the PM set aside some precious time to fit in some photo opps with Ms Portas. Then he set up something called the High Street Innovation Fund and allocated around £1.2m to be shared among 12 towns. With a certain depressing predictability, 10 of the 12 towns chosen now report an increase in empty retail units.

Later this week, the Parliamentary Commission on Banking Standards will issue its long-awaited report. The remit of the study is to increase competition and strengthen governance across the banking sector. As part of its findings, the commission might care to suggest that antiquated high street planning regulations be brought into the 21st century. If such changes do not go down too well with planning lawyers coining it in from change of use appeals, then so be it.

Photograph: Getty Images

Douglas Blakey is the editor of Retail Banker International

Photo: Getty Images
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I'll vote against bombing Isis - but my conscience is far from clear

Chi Onwurah lays out why she'll be voting against British airstrikes in Syria.

I have spent much of the weekend considering how I will vote on the question of whether the UK should extend airstrikes against Daesh/Isis from Iraq to Syria, seeking out and weighing the evidence and the risks.

My constituents have written, emailed, tweeted, facebooked or stopped me in the street to share their thoughts. Most recognised what a difficult and complex decision it is. When I was selected to be the Labour candidate for Newcastle Central I was asked what I thought would be the hardest part of being an MP.

I said it would be this.

I am not a pacifist, I believe our country is worth defending and our values worth fighting for. But the decision to send British Armed Forces into action is, rightly, a heavy responsibility.

For me it comes down to two key questions. The security of British citizens, and the avoidance of civilian casualties. These are separate operational and moral questions but they are linked in that it is civilian casualties which help fuel the Daesh ideology that we cannot respect and value the lives of those who do not believe as we do. There is also the important question of solidarity with the French in the wake of their grievous and devastating loss; I shall come to that later.

I listened very carefully to the Prime Minister as he set out the case for airstrikes on Thursday and I share his view that Daesh represents a real threat to UK citizens. However he did not convince me that UK airstrikes at this time would materially reduce that threat. The Prime Minister was clear that Daesh cannot be defeated from the air. The situation in Syria is complex and factionalised, with many state and non-state actors who may be enemies of our enemy and yet not our friend. The Prime Minister claimed there were 70,000 ground troops in the moderate Free Syrian Army but many experts dispute that number and the evidence does not convince me that they are in a position to lead an effective ground campaign. Bombs alone will not prevent Daesh obtaining money, arms and more recruits or launching attacks on the UK. The Prime Minister did not set out how we would do that, his was not a plan for security and peace in Syria with airstrikes a necessary support to it, but a plan to bomb Syria, with peace and security cited in support of it. That is not good enough for me.

Daesh are using civilian population as human shields. Syrians in exile speak of the impossibility of targeting the terrorists without hitting innocent bystanders. I fear that bombing Raqqa to eliminate Daesh may be like bombing Gaza to eliminate Hamas – hugely costly in terms of the civilian population and ultimately ineffectual.

Yet the evil that Daesh perpetrate demands a response. President Hollande has called on us to join with French forces. I lived in Paris for three years, I spent time in just about every location that was attacked two weeks ago, I have many friends living in Paris now, I believe the French are our friends and allies and we should stand and act in solidarity with them, and all those who have suffered in Mali, Kenya, Nigeria, Lebanon, Tunisia and around the world.

But there are other ways to act as well as airstrikes. Britain is the only G7 country to meet its international development commitments, we are already one of the biggest humanitarian contributors to stemming the Syrian crisis, we can do more not only in terms of supporting refugees but helping those still in Syria, whether living in fear of Daesh or Assad. We can show the world that our response is to build rather than bomb. The Prime Minister argues that without taking part in the bombing we will not have a place at the table for the reconstruction. I would think our allies would be reluctant to overlook our financial commitment.

We can also do more to cut off Daesh funding, targeting their oil wells, their revenues, their customers and their suppliers. This may not be as immediately satisfying as bombing the terrorists but it is a more effective means of strangling them.

The vast majority of the constituents who contacted me were against airstrikes. I agree with them for the reasons I set out above. I should say that I have had no experience of bullying or attempts at intimidation in reaching this decision, Newcastle Central is too friendly, frank, comradely and Geordie a constituency for that. But some have suggested that I should vote against airstrikes to ensure a “clear conscience” ’. This is not the case. There will be more killings and innocent deaths whether there are UK airstrikes or not, and we will all bear a portion of responsibility for them.

A version of this article was originally sent to Chi Onwurah's constituents, and can be read here