Nick Cicutti column

he fight to keep the Nationwide mutual is on again. If it loses, we all do
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Indy Lifestyle Online
MICHAEL HARDERN is a persistent man. He must also believe his ideas will benefit the rest of us - why else would he waste millions of pounds of Nationwide members' money in his second attempt to climb on to the building society's board?

Mr Hardern, you may recall, is the former butler who put himself and a slate of supporters up for election to the Nationwide board last summer. His aim was to garner enough votes to show that the call for the Nationwide to demutualise - so its members could receive up to pounds 1,500 in free shares - had massive backing. Nationwide members voted almost three to one against the "flotation candidates".

Undeterred, he is standing again this year. Moreover, his backers have also arranged for a motion to be voted on which explicitly calls on members to decide whether they want their society to be floated.

This time last year I argued that Nationwide members should vote against Mr Hardern's bid to join the board. It was not just that he and his friends were unlikely candidates to run a multi-billion-pound building society, but because I oppose demutualisation.

Let me be clear: I don't believe building societies are the ultimate in democratic financial institutions, nor that they always offer the best deals to savers and borrowers. What's more, the manipulation of members by Nationwide - witness the way its ballot papers are colour- coded to facilitate the "right" vote - is annoying.

Yet most societies do offer a better deal to members than banks. This week's announcement by the big societies that they are freezing their mortgage rates at least until 1 August, while the Halifax, Woolwich and other former mutuals raced to raise theirs, is evidence.

And look at the City's reaction to the announcement earlier this week that Halifax and Alliance & Leicester would be raising their mortgage rates by 0.25 per cent. Shares rose. Borrowers will pay an extra pounds 144 on a typical pounds 60,000 loan.

Ah, you say, but mutuality isn't good for savers, whose rates - even if marginally better than a bank's - would take 50 years or more to give any tangible benefits to members. And there are 4 million borrowers to 1 million savers at Nationwide.

The reality, however, is that a person's relationship with their society changes. When you are young and buying a home, you will be a borrower. Later, when the mortgage is paid off and the kids have grown up, that situation changes. The benefits continue to flow, even if in a more gradual way.

If Mr Hardern succeeds, the Nationwide's demutualisation will hit us all as competition in the financial sec- tor is weakened. We wait for the result with bated breath.

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