Northern Ireland builds a Potemkin village to look good for the G8

A teachable moment in austerity.

Northern Ireland is in a tricky situation. It's hosting the G8 summit in the luxury Lough Erne resort in three weeks time, in the midst of an economic slump which has rendered much of the nearby community of Fermanagh a ghost town. That's not the sort of thing which any nation wants to deal with; it's embarrassing enough when the neighbours pop over and you've forgotten to do the hoovering, let alone when you don't have a fully functioning economy in your rural outskirts. And while George Osborne isn't exactly hiding the fact that the UK is in dire economic straits, the chancellor still wants to put on a brave face in front of Vladimir Putin. So what do you do? Build a potemkin village, of course! The Irish Times reports:

Just a few weeks ago, Flanagan’s – a former butcher’s and vegetable shop in the neat village – was cleaned and repainted with bespoke images of a thriving business placed in the windows. Any G8 delegate passing on the way to discuss global capitalism would easily be fooled into thinking that all is well with the free-market system in Fermanagh. But, the facts are different…

The butcher’s business has been replaced by a picture of a butcher’s business. Across the road is a similar tale. A small business premises has been made to look like an office supplies store. It used to be a pharmacy, now relocated on the village main street.

Hopefully, the Chancellor does, in fact, know that the economy in rural Northern Ireland is suffering somewhat. It's his job, after all. So the Potemkin village is just for the sake of appearances in front of the neighbours. Still, while he's out there, he could learn a thing or two from the Northern Irish Departments for the Environment and Social Development, like how to justify economic stimulus:

All is paid for by so-called dereliction funding. About £300,000 was made available by the Department of the Environment and the Department for Social Development. A second round of funding is expected… The short-term beneficiaries were local builders and painters who were called in for the spruce-up.

But as Keynesianism goes, this is a pretty poor attempt at it. It suffers from the same false economies that most of the UK's policy does these days. If you're going to spend money with the aim of a) sprucing up a town in preparation for international visitors and b) providing work for local builders and painters, then a far better sort of stimulus would be to increase your initial outlay, to £3m or even £30m, and try to fill those properties with real businesses, rather than pretty pictures of businesses. In the short term, the cost will be more, but there's no substitute for having a thriving local economy, and you'll soon earn the outlay back.

But if Osborne understood that, we wouldn't be in this mess in the first place.

Enniskillen in Country Fermanagh. Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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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