Morning Call: pick of the papers

The ten must-read comment pieces from this morning's papers.

1. I’ll be voting to quit the EU (Times)

David Cameron’s attempts at renegotiation will be inconsequential – we must leave, writes Nigel Lawson.

2. The elite boast of little sleep, but it's those at the bottom who really suffer (Guardian)

Sleep proves how inequality touches even our most intimate lives – just ask those who toil for low pay with inadequate rest, writes Aditya Chakrabortty.

3. David Cameron has two years left to summon up the spirit of 1992 (Daily Telegraph)

Despite the UKIP threat, the signs are growing that the PM can copy John Major’s upset, says Benedict Brogan.

4. Toxic smog smothers the Chinese dream (Financial Times)

Beijing may be ready to act over the country’s appalling pollution, writes Gideon Rachman.

5. Why the politics of envy are keenest among the very rich (Guardian)

Essential public services are cut in order that the wealthy may pay less tax, writes George Monbiot. But even their baubles don't make them happy.

6. Israel should seize the Arab League's offer (Independent)

Wherever the truth lies in Syria, Israel’s intervention has inevitably eclipsed the other potential development in her relations in the Arab world, writes Donald Macintyre.

7. It would be folly for Cameron to ape UKIP (Financial Times)

This is already an exceptionally conservative government, writes Janan Ganesh.

8. If we want more women in British boardrooms, we need to fix childcare and introduce quotas (Independent)

The Nordic countries have better conditions for being either a mum or a female CEO, writes Margareta Pagano.

9. Governments manage change. UKIP fears it (Times)

Anxiety about the modern world is understandable, but people must be helped to adapt, not encouraged to hide, says Rachel Sylvester.

10. Reforming the UN security council: mañana, mañana (Guardian)

After almost 70 years, it suffers from the twin deficits of representativeness and legitimacy, says a Guardian editorial.

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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