Over the past year we have been working with Fellows across the UK to build a new network of regional community banks. In this blog, Deputy Head of Engagement, Mark Hall outlines four key ways in which we are supporting the community banking movement to make an impact.
1. Convening reasoned debate
Born in Rawthmells Coffeehouse in 18th century London, the RSA has a rich history of convening reasoned debate on the major challenges of our time. Today our public events programme, Fellowship networks and 21st century Rawthmells Coffeehouse continue this tradition – with reform of our financial services remaining a crucial debate for the future of both place and planet.
To encourage this debate, we started 2019 with an event in collaboration with Bristol City Council which brought together local authorities to discuss how council investments in community banks could enhance local economic and social outcomes. Participants joined a world-café style discussion after we put forward the case for regional banks and heard from speakers, including the Director of Finance at Brent Council, Conrad Hall, who talked about how these banks might help tackle financial exclusion and support small businesses. The Deputy Mayor of Bristol, Cllr Craig Cheeney, described this as ‘a huge and exciting opportunity to bring a whole new model of banking to the UK’.
The RSA’s Cashing Out report, published in January 2019, was our contribution to the debate on the future of cash and bank branches. On the back of the Access to Cash Review and several announcements of branch closures throughout the year, this was an issue that attracted significant media attention over the course of 2019. In September, we held an event to explore how a mission-led bank could have a positive impact in London, which brought together around 100 Fellows alongside the Chair of the Access to Cash Review, Natalie Ceeney, Chairman of the Federation of Small Businesses, Mike Cherry, and Chair of Greater London Mutual (GLM), Kathryn Kerle.
2. Influencing key organisations
While the RSA plays an important role in convening debate, we don’t just want to raise the profile of good ideas – we want to influence the organisations that can help make them a reality. As well as adding to the debate on cash and branches, our Cashing Out report reached key institutions that have influence over their future. On the back of the report, the Chairman of Financial Conduct Authority, Charles Randell, stated in a speech to the Retail Banking Conference that alternative models such as community banks might help ease the impact of branch closures. The report was also referenced in the Treasury Committee’s Consumers’ Access to Financial Services inquiry in May. Over the summer we met with the Archbishop of Canterbury’s advisors and the Just Finance Foundation at Lambeth Palace, who then called on the government to invest in community banks.
The RSA has been a key partner in building support for community banks with local authorities. We held a roundtable at RSA House in November, which has strengthened our partnership with several local authorities who are now in talks with GLM to provide critical seed funding.
The RSA’s influence also extends beyond London. Our work and research in this area has been cited from the Scottish Highlands to South West England, most recently during First Minister’s Questions at the Welsh Assembly, where the RSA’s work is regularly referenced in discussion and debate. In the recent general election, The Green Party and Welsh Labour supported our model of banking in their manifestos.
Our Fellowship networks have also been a source of powerful connection and influence. Through a meeting at the RSA with Jeff Hayes FRSA, we set up a meeting with Trust for London who have helped us connect with likeminded organisations and will be considering an application from GLM for social investment in the new year. This is just one of a plethora of Fellowship connections that has yielded influence over the past year.
3. Demonstrating practical solutions
One of the most exciting aspects of this project is working with Fellows who are demonstrating how community banking is a practical solution to addressing some of the major challenges facing our communities and our economy. Gemma Bone Dodds FRSA has been covering a lot of ground across the North East and Scotland to push the case for community banks, with the launch of her RSA-supported report A Bank for the North East and a workshop at the People’s Powerhouse Convention in Sunderland.
In October I visited Rochdale, the birthplace of the co-operative movement, attending the Cooperative Council Innovation Network’s annual conference to talk to councils about community banking – a topic that was raised by many of the speakers, including Cllr Matthew Brown, leader of Preston Council and one of the pioneers of the Preston Model and community wealth building in the UK.
We are keen to work with local authorities to further explore the role of local community banks in building community wealth, as advocated by CLES in their Manifesto for Local Economies. This could be radically different in an inner-city London borough to a council such as Preston, or to many rural areas where bank branch provision is disappearing. Only by working with people rooted in these places can we start to realise the potential of this powerful idea.
4. Enabling people to realise change
People everywhere are looking for new ideas that they can use to improve their communities. Having worked in this space for more than two years now, people regularly get in touch to ask how to go about setting up a local bank, or how they can get involved. While setting up a new bank is a major undertaking, connecting Fellows and others together improves the chances of realising this change. Every fortnight we host a conference call for the Fellows leading the banks, which provides an opportunity to work through challenges together, learn from each other and identify areas where they can benefit from cooperation.
Fellows are involved at every stage of this movement: from founder members to chief executives, non-executive directors, advisory board members and supporters – working together we can make this vision a reality.
Throughout our history the RSA has been an important enabler of social change. The Fellows leading this work are just some of the latest pioneers driving the change that is so desperately needed to transform economy and communities across the UK. Each of these impact areas adds value to this movement, but it’s when the whole of the RSA delivers on all four of these areas that we most powerfully contribute to changing the world for the better.
If you have relevant experience to help support our community banking movement across the UK, then email us at [email protected]. You can sign up to receive updates on community banking and our emerging radical finance hub below.