Could new community banks change Britain for the better?

A protest against the ECB in 2015. Image: Getty.

In the wake of the 2008 crisis, it rapidly became clear that banking was broken. The global financial sector had captured its own regulators and mis-sold mortgages while spreading the risk across the entire system to such an extent that the global economy crashed nearly overnight.

Andy Haldane, chief economist of the bank of England responded by suggesting that part of the problem was lack of diversity of ownership model. This dovetailed neatly with the work the Royal Society of Arts (RSA) was doing, envisaging the new economy that was clearly necessary to replace the broken old one: modelling, researching and promoting initiatives and policies such as economic democracy, basic income, financial reform etc. Now, over 10 years later several economists affiliated with the RSA are launching or promoting public and community banks.

Community and social banks of this sort are commonplace in several other countries: there are the Sparkassen in Germany, the ICBA group in the US and Triodos in the Netherlands. The Sparkassen banks have very good customer relations relative to the rest of the German financial sector, while an ICBA member bank, the Bank of North Dakota, helped the state weather the effects of the financial crash in a way that just did not happen in other states. Meanwhile the Netherlands’ Triodos only finances projects that aim to make a positive cultural, social or environmental change – particularly financing a transition to renewable energy.  

Tony Greenham, former director of economics at the RSA, is one of the economists promoting community banks as a solution for the UK, and is currently launching South West Mutual, a community bank for the South West region. Greenham describes it as a regional stakeholder bank that is “focussed on a particular geographic subregion of a country, with a dual social and financial mission”. It differs from a normal shareholder bank insofar as it’s accountable to all stakeholders, not just shareholders. In practice this means that anyone with a stake in the bank, which could simply be a current account, gets to vote on how it is run.

Greenham explains that “these banks are quite often successful by collaborating together in networks to share costs and resources”. That is exactly what is happening in the UK. The Community Savings Bank Association is a network of eighteen banks, of which South West mutual is one, which are aiming to establish themselves across the UK, from Scotland to Kent.

Such banks could help the UK address the structures behind a variety of social and economic problems. The city of London and the hegemony of the banks and financial institutions based there, bear significant responsibility for the political and economic malaise we find ourselves in today. Capital flows from the various regions of the UK into London, and the presence of the financial sector there narrows the focus of politicians to a small area in and around London, meaning it receives a disproportionate amount of public spending at the expense of poorer areas.

New community banks might not be able to break the stranglehold of the city over our politics and economics, but they can mount a challenge and show there is another way. They outperform the big banks on a number of metrics such as financial inclusion, lending to small and medium businesses and smoothing out regional inequalities.


That last metric is crucial to the UK which has some of the worst regional inequalities in western Europe. Greenham and others in the new economics scene argue that part of the reason that these inequalities are so bad is because we lack these regional stakeholder-owned banks that can capture and recirculate money within a region and prevent it from flooding back into the capital.

Greenham is not the only one who thinks this. He has been in touch over a period of months with Matthew Brown, leader of Preston Council and pioneer of the much lauded “Preston model”, who is helping to launch the North West regional community bank which is part of the CSBA network. Their regional and community focus, and the ability to retain capital inside an area, means these banks will be a boon to further devolution and projects, like the Preston model, based on radical municipalism.

Some critics – such as RSA fellow, economist and social bank advocate Paul Gower who will be speaking at the Institute for Social Banking’s summer school in Switzerland – have suggested that the smaller scale of these banks can lead to corruption, as has sometimes happened in Germany, if they are not carefully managed. Greenham’s argument is that “all corporate failures are ultimately failures of governance”: he disagrees that the smaller scale makes these banks inherently more vulnerable to corruption. Indeed, he notes, nobody points to the corruption at Metrobank as indicative of inherent flaws at that larger scale of finance.

Supporters of community banks also argue that they could have an impact beyond their size by dragging the larger banks in a more socially oriented direction. Greenham likens it to the role the BBC as a public service broadcaster has played in raising the quality of other channels’ programming, by forcing them to compete with programme designed a social good.

Meanwhile, Gower notes that the big banks are stealing the language of social banks and may find themselves in a situation where their employees have bought into the social purpose: shareholders and directors would have no choice but to comply or risk damaging employee engagement and therefore productivity.

The CSBA network probably isn’t the revolution people in Occupy camps were hoping for 10 years ago. But whether it’s helping finance the retrofitting of houses with passive insulation as part of the zero carbon transition, regenerating regions or rebuilding the high street, these smaller, democratically controlled and socially oriented banks can help address the abject failures of big financial institutions and could form a small part of much wider transformations in the country.                    

 

 
 
 
 

How China's growing cities are adapting to pressures on housing and transport

Shenzhen, southern China's major financial centre. (Photo by Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images)

In the last 40 years, the world’s most populous country has urbanised at a rate unprecedented in human history. China now has over 100 cities with populations greater than a million people, easily overshadowing the combined total of such cities in North America and Europe. 

That means urban policy in China is of increasing relevance to planning professionals around the world, and for many in Western nations there’s a lot to learn about the big-picture trends happening there, especially as local and national governments grapple with the coronavirus crisis. 

Can Chinese policymakers fully incorporate the hundreds of millions of rural-to-urban migrants living semi-legally in China’s cities into the economic boom that has transformed the lives of so many of their fellow citizens? The air quality in many major cities is still extremely poor, and lung cancer and other respiratory ailments are a persistent threat to health. Relatedly, now that car ownership is normalised among the urban middle classes, where are they going to put all these newly minted private automobiles?


Yan Song is the director of the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill’s Program on Chinese Cities and a professor in the school’s celebrated urban planning department. She’s studied Chinese, American, and European cities for almost 20 years and I spoke with her about the issues above as well as changing attitudes towards cycling and displacement caused by urban renewal. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

American cities face very different challenges depending on which part of the country they are in. The Rust Belt struggles with vacancy, depopulation, and loss of tax base. In coastal cities housing affordability is a huge problem. How do the challenges of Chinese cities vary by region?

Generally speaking, the cities that are richer, usually on the eastern coastal line, are facing different challenges than cities in the western "hinterland." The cities that are at a more advantaged stage, where socio-economic development is pretty good, those cities are pretty much aware of the sustainability issue. They're keen on addressing things like green cities.

But the biggest challenge they face is housing affordability. Cities like Beijing, Shanghai, Shenzhen, and Hangzhou are trying to keep or attract young talent, but the housing prices are really, really high. The second challenge is equity. How do you provide equal, or at least fair, services to both the urban residents and the migrants who are living in the city, to alleviate some of the concerns around what the government is calling “social harmony?” 

Then the cities in the hinterland, typically they are resource economies. They are shrinking cities; they're trying to keep population. At the same time, they are addressing environmental issues, because they were overly relying on the natural endowments of their resources in the past decades, and now they're facing how to make the next stage of economic transition. That's the biggest divide in terms of regional challenges.

These urban centers rely on migrant workers for a lot of essential services, food preparation, driving, cleaning. But they live tenuous lives and don't have access to a lot of public services like education, health care, social insurance. Are Chinese policymakers trying to adopt a healthier relationship with this vast workforce?

The governments are making huge efforts in providing basic services to the migrants living in the city. They're relaxing restrictions for educational enrollment for migrants in the cities. In health care as well as the social security they are reforming the system to allow the free transfer of social benefits or credits across where they live and where they work [so they can be used in their rural hometown or the cities where they live and work]. 

In terms of health care, it's tough for the urban residents as well just because of the general shortage of the public health care system. So, it's tough for the urban residents and even tougher for the migrants. But the new policy agenda's strategists are aware of those disadvantages that urban migrants are facing in the cities and they're trying to fix the problem.

What about in terms of housing?

The rental market has been relaxed a lot in recent years to allow for more affordable accommodation of rural-to-urban migrants. Welfare housing, subsidised housing, unfortunately, skews to the urban residents. It's not opened up yet for the migrants. 

The rental market wasn't that active in previous years. But recently some policies allow for more flexible rental arrangements, allowing for shared rentals, making choices more available in the rental market. Before it was adopted, it’s prohibited to have, for example, three or more people sharing an apartment unit. Now that’s been relaxed in some cities, allowing for more migrant workers to share one unit to keep the rates down for them. You see a little bit more affordable rental units available in the market now.

I just read Thomas Campanella’s The Concrete Dragon, and he talks a lot about the scale of displacement in the 1990s and 2000s. Massive urban renewal projects where over 300,000 people in Beijing lost homes to Olympics-related development. Or Shanghai and Beijing each losing more homes in the ‘90s than were lost in all of America's urban renewal projects combined. It didn't sound like those displaced people had much of a voice in the political process. But that book was published in 2008.  How has policy changed since then, especially if people are more willing to engage in activism?

First of all, I want to make a justification for urban renewal in Chinese cities, which were developed mostly in the ‘50s and ‘60s. At the time, [in the 1990s] the conditions weren’t good and allowing for better standards of construction would inevitably have to displace some of the residents in older settlements. In my personal opinion, that wasn't something that could be done in an alternative way.  

Still, in the earlier days, the way of displacing people was really arbitrary, that's true. There wasn't much feedback gathered from the public or even from the people affected. In the name of the public interest, in the name of expanding a road, or expanding an urban center, that's just directed from the top down. 

Nowadays things are changing. The State Council realized they needed more inclusive urban development, they needed to have all the stakeholders heard in the process. In terms of how to process urban development, and sometimes displacement, the way that they are dealing with it now is more delicate and more inclusive.

Can you give me an example of what that looks like?

For example, [consider] hutong in Beijing, the alleyway houses, a typical lower-density [neighbourhood] that needs to be redeveloped. In the past, a notification was sent to the neighbours: “You need to be replaced. You need to be displaced, we need to develop.” That's it. 

Nowadays, they inform all different sorts of stakeholders. They could include artists' associations, nonprofits, grassroots organisations that represent the interests of the local residents. Then they [the citizens groups] could say what they really want to preserve. “This is what we think is really valuable” and that will be part of the inputs in the planning process. Some of the key elements could possibly be preserved. They  [the authorities] also talk about the social network, because they realized that when they displace people, the biggest loss is the social network that they have built in the original location. So, it's not only conserving some of the physical environment, but also trying to conserve some of the social network that people have.  


(STR/AFP via Getty Images)

Speaking of urban renewal, there was a big emphasis in the ‘90s and 2000s on highways. A lot of auto-oriented development in Beijing, following more of a Los Angeles than New York model. There's this quote I saw from Hong Kong architect Tao Ho, during the 1990s development of Pudong in Shanghai, warning against replicating “the tall buildings and car-oriented mentality of the West." 

In the ’90s or the first decade of the 21st century, most cities in China were still making mistakes. When I was a student, in the late '90s, I was translating for the American Planning Association. At the time, Beijing was still taking out the bike lanes and the planners from APA were telling them: “No, don't do that. Don't make that mistake." 

In the past decade, that's not occurring anymore. It has been happening [adding bike lanes] for a couple of years in Beijing, Shanghai, Shenzhen. More attention has been given to improving the service quality of green transportation, upgrades to buses, the bike lane system, and so on. 

As China got richer, bikes became a symbol of poverty and, like you said, urban planners began removing bike lanes. Cities like Nanjing and Shanghai considered banning bikes from the central city entirely. 

For a long time, bike lanes were abandoned and the road surface was more devoted to the car. But in the past few years this has been changing, more road space has been given to bus rapid transit and to bike lanes. The attitude giving precedence to the private car is giving way.

Another thing they are trying to do is behavioural change, teaching younger generations that biking is cool, creating a new set of values that's more sustainable. In some major cities, you see educational campaigns, posters around the cities, [saying] bicycling is really cool. 

A recent paper you worked on looked at air quality in Chinese cities and found they are still struggling. The paper cited a study suggesting “that Chinese cities face the worst air quality across different cities around [the] world based on an extensive research of 175 countries.” Your paper recommends transit-oriented development and significant green outdoor space. Is that something you see policymakers adopting?

Yes, definitely, although with regional variations still. The eastern and southern cities are seeing more policies toward transit-oriented development. They are adapting smart technology too. For example, Hangzhou, which is the model of smart cities, the tech tycoon Alibaba installed sensors on every single traffic signal there. Then they were using technology to change the light, so when they detect a higher volume of traffic, they streamline the green lights and the red light wouldn't stop the cars, so there are less carbon emissions at the intersections. They showed that there was a reduction of up to 15% emissions. 

What about in terms of parking policy? How are policymakers trying to deal with the influx of cars in these cities? Are there parking minimums like in many American cities?

I was visiting Hangzhou in December, their “Smart City” headquarters there. They were trying to use technology to let people know where there's parking, so they don't have to drive around, which increases carbon emissions. In other cities, like Shenzhen, they were increasing the parking fee in the downtown by 50 yuan, or seven US dollars an hour. That's pretty high in the context of Chinese cities. It was 10 or 20 yuan before. So, just increasing the parking cost in the downtown area so that you discourage people from driving.

What are you working on now?

My new research is still on air quality. We had a really cool collaboration with a counterpart of Google Street Map. In China, that’s Baidu StreetMap. We asked the company to install another sensor on their cars when they take pictures. We added a sensor for air quality. So, we will know at a street level what are the current emissions by geolocation, by time. That will be really cool when we have all that data. 

Jake Blumgart is a staff writer for CityMetric.