Banks must not see the Big Society Bank as a penance

Much better for banks to commit to more lending to social business than make a one-off donation to the Big Society Bank, says Rod Schwartz of ClearlySo

Rodney Schwartz
Rodney Schwartz

The Big Society Bank has been in the news again this month. Much of this attention focuses on concerns that the government is taking longer than expected to get the bank ready for launch. The original plan was to have it ready for April, but now Cabinet Office minister Oliver Letwin has said it will start in the "not too far distant future".

A more intriguing issue has been thrown up by the continuing Merlin talks between Barclays, HSBC, Lloyds and RBS, aimed at securing concessions over pay, taxes and a lending commitment for small businesses. Part of this agreement could include a collective injection of £1bn into the Big Society Bank. An announcement is expected any day now.

This is key, because without it the bank might start with limited funds - perhaps as little as £60m. The principal aim of these talks seems to be to refresh the banking sector's image. The banks hope that, by making a number of positive-sounding commitments, they can reduce the ill feeling coming their way, from both government and the country at large.

A pledge to support the social enterprise sector through a high-profile capital injection to the flagship Big Society Bank would seem to be an excellent start.

The social enterprise sector might instinctively welcome such a move. But we have to ask ourselves seriously if this move would provide long-lasting benefit to social enterprise or be a short-term panacea to help everyone feel a little better. On the one hand, it would undoubtedly provide extra funding for the bank, which would be welcomed; but on the other, in the slightly longer term, taking these funds now could work to the detriment of the voluntary sector.

I would wholeheartedly welcome participation in social enterprise from the banks, but it would be far preferable for them to engage in this sector on their own terms.

And I would ideally like to see the banks investing in social enterprises as part of their mainstream activities. If that were the case, investments would be backed by commercial acumen, free from any political strings.

As it stands, the deal does little more than offer the banks a way to feel a little better about themselves without achieving anything tangible.

There is a real danger that they will simply view any allocation of funds as representing a penance paid. They have done their bit, they would say, and simply walk away. There would be little planning or oversight to ensure funds were directed in the most effective way.

It is important that the banks engage in the social enterprise sector in a proactive manner - not simply because they believe they should. If they did, they would realise the benefits of engaging in what is one of the most vibrant and upwardly mobile sectors in the economy.

One can understand why there would be immense political advantage in securing participation from the banks in the big society, and that it might offer everyone a distinctly fuzzy glow. But it might also prove to be an opportunity missed.

- Rodney Schwartz is chief executive of social venture capital website clearlyso.com

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