The future of finance - as imagined by Ryanair

No frills finance is taking off - and while many have an opinion on allocated seating, printing your own boarding pass and paying for food on-board, the model remains simple but thrilling.

When Easyjet, Ryanair and Jet2 launched they shook up an airline industry dominated by high prices and package holidays. They were able to offer a direct and simple way to get a better rate on your seat using the internet. They offered a new way to travel, giving people unprecedented access to air travel on a scale never seen before. While many have an opinion on allocated seating, printing your own boarding pass or paying for food on-board, the model was simple but thrilling – give the customer a low-cost, destination rich, frill-free option and see if it flies. It did, and became the new normal.

Fast forward 20 or so years, and something similar is happening in finance. While a few canny and charismatic entrepreneurs drove the adoption of low cost flying, it is a combination of people power and the latest technology that is revolutionising finance in this digital age - taking the frills out of finance but putting great rates back in. An example of this would be the peer-to-peer finance industry, which innovation specialists Nesta calculate to be currently worth a staggering £482 million in 2013 alone. Not enough to topple High Street banking yet, but certainly enough for mainstream customers to take notice. Peer-to-peer lending businesses have taken a very old model in banking, which is essentially lending and borrowing, and modernised it through online platforms to offer a more direct, open and transparent way to lend and borrow. It is a product that offers reward balanced against risk as platforms aim to diversify the risk, only lend to most credit worthy borrowers and some platforms even have safeguard funds in place in case of a default. There is also a social element as many lenders appreciate the community spirit involved as they are helping people finance a new car or home improvement or supporting a business to grow through a business loan. The return for enabling this is personal, and provides a financial incentive which currently offers returns two or three times higher than the rate of inflation. Meanwhile, high street banks offer savings rates so low that in real terms its costing people to save money.

In October 2013 the industry warmly welcomed the draft measure outlined by the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) for regulating peer-to-peer lending. Put simply, regulation will help improve trust in an industry that is still growing and open it up to a whole new consumer audience. How they are regulated is one of the most common questions asked of peer-to-peer lending platforms, as there is an added level of perceived safety that regulation seems to bring to any industry. Some have speculated that regulation may stifle the creativity of those currently operating in the sector, but the majority believe it will normalise and legitimise these more democratic forms of finance.

With all businesses more accountable and connected to their customers than ever before, repairing the damage caused by the financial crisis is proving tough for traditional financial institutions. While there will always be a desire to have a transaction based relationship with banks, the increasing popularity of alternative finance options cannot be ignored. Startling growth rates of 200 per cent year-on-year have been predicted for the peer-to-peer lending platforms over the next few years, helped on by regulation and other benefits that this allows like tax free savings in ISAs. The take-off of peer-to-peer lending has been steep but it’s for many that regulation will bring about a smooth landing, with higher volumes of passenger numbers in 2014.

Giles Andrews is CEO and Co-Founder of Zopa

Could the principals of budget aviation be applied to finance? Photograph: Getty Images.
Giles Andrews is CEO and Co-Founder of Zopa
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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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