No institutions are safe as windfall mania grips the country. What price an Oxbridge college?
It's the year 2010 and Rupert Murdoch (or his successor) has just launched a bid for Magdalen College, Oxford. The 30 fellows must decide where the interests of future students best lie. And into the balance they must weigh their one-thirtieth share of the pounds 20m the media mogul has placed on the table.

Inconceivable? Probably. But windfall mania is out of control in Britain, and our appetite for getting 'owt for nowt shows few signs of abating. Perhaps it is unfortunate that ownership of many of our richest and most precious institutions, is a little murky. Consequently, there is little to stop many being wound up and their assets distributed to beneficiaries or trustees.

This week 50,000 householders in Hull picked up pounds 400 windfalls after the flotation of their telephone exchange. Who could have imagined anyone wanting to buy the AA or the RAC? Two years ago, florist members of the Interflora network took swift action to head off a planned flotation, which would have lined their pockets.

Few other groups would have been as altruistic as the florists. Certainly not members of Britain's building societies, who shared more than pounds 20bn. And as the building society world knows, the first battle is rarely the last.

The building society closing- down sale is largely over, and although there is still some opportunity to carpetbag mutual life insurance companies, the serious windfall hunter must soon turn his talents to pastures new. First stop has to be a job at John Lewis. If the Partnership, owned by its employees, were to opt for a Goldman Sachs-style flotation, counter staff could pocket around pounds 100,000 each.

The company says it couldn't be done because of the restrictive nature of its constitution. But building societies couldn't be sold off either until the 1986 Building Societies Act introduced special measures, for use in exceptional circumstances.

John Lewis is by no means the only employee partnership. Baxi's Heating in Preston, which makes boilers and clean-air systems, is the largest manufacturing partnership owned by employees, with a pounds 200m pan-European turnover.

The economy is littered with potential goldmines. But to set the cash rolling there's little to beat a fellowship at one of the older Oxford or Cambridge colleges, wealthy in land and endowments, their ownership complex and based on ancient charters. Robin Darwall-Smith, archivist at Magdalen, says: "Many of these colleges are worth tens of millions of pounds, yet technically they are owned by the head and usually between 30 and 50 fellows. In theory, these would be the beneficiaries of any sale."

The ownership of the Church of England is indecipherable. Like the Methodists, the local parishes own their churches, and in theory could sell them off and split the proceeds among the congregation.

But if joining a religious group is a step too far for a windfall, membership of a local tennis, golf or cricket club could pay dividends if it is wound up and all the assets, usually property-based, are distributed. MCC membership has to be the pick of the bunch. It brings with it ownership of the Lord's cricket ground, 13 acres of prime land in St John's Wood worth more than pounds 130m. Its 18,000 members might pocket nearly pounds 8,000 each on the proceeds of the ground alone.

The position with Wimbledon is slightly trickier, because it is jointly owned by the All England Club and the Lawn Tennis Association. But the pounds 84m price tag hanging over its 42 acres might encourage some creative thinking to overcome the obstacles. The rest of the economy is lined with mutual activities, created out of crisis to fill a gap left by the private sector, an origin common to many building societies and insurance companies.

Although some mutuals struggle to survive, and offer scant potential for huge windfalls today, history shows that successful mutuals can grow rapidly and become attractive to commercial predators. One such front- runner is child care. The network of kids' clubs, which has 14,788 members in 637 separate enterprises, could well become attractive to a company determined to control the child-care market. Similarly, the large agricultural co-ops, with a pounds 7.4bn total turnover and 243,000 membership, could be bought out.

The implications of the new breed of electronic mutuals, of which Linux is a perfect example, have also set hands scratching heads. In 1991, Linus Torwalds, a 21-year-old computer student at Helsinki University, posted the rudiments of a computer system called Linux on the Internet and invited other programmers to download his creation, and tinker to improve it.

Today, it runs some 10 million computers including systems at Nasa, Boeing, Wells Fargo Bank and the US Postal Service. Microsoft's attempts to buy it, because it has other rivals, have failed because technically it is not owned by anyone.

To really get your hands on money you need to be a member of a rich organisation. Many trade unions, now struggling to find a role since the end of national pay bargaining, are sitting on a pile of assets. Little could stop members opting for the national body to be wound up and the assets distributed to them, while workers continued to operate locally.

One organisation which can never be touched, I am informed, is the Labour Party. Even if the last member left, the party could not be wound up - which must be very reassuring for Tony.

Comments