EVERY TIME I write about mutuality, a flood of letters arrives chiding me for arguing in favour of building societies (and insurers, for that matter) remaining in the hands of their members. Doubtlessly another pile will land on my desk in the coming week.

But one can't help discussing the issue, especially in the wake of Bradford & Bingley's announcement this week of a new package of financial services initiatives for its members, a package that is aimed partly at defending its mutuality in a ballot due to be launched next month.

B&B's measures are discussed elsewhere in this section, and readers will have to make up their own minds as to which way they will sway voters who are deciding whether to back or to oppose a resolution in favour of flotation.

First, let me declare an interest. I am a B&B member and will be casting my vote against the resolution. I wish I could say that the package unveiled this week will help me do that. Sadly, it won't - of itself - though it may do so, in other ways.

Take the society's plans for its estate agency chain. The concept of a "sellers' survey" aimed at speeding up the sale of a property through B&B's estate agency chain is a good one. Except that the two areas in which I am buying and selling a property don't have a B&B agent. Geographical limitations mean that that idea doesn't help me at all.

As for its offer to lend a mortgage of up to 95 per cent of a home's value to buyers of a property being sold with one of B&B's sellers' surveys, that all depends on whether a B&B loan is the right one for borrowers. Nothing that B&B has available at present particularly attracts me. Sorry.

Then there's the planned expansion of B&B's network of independent financial advisers (IFAs). The trouble is, I don't really think much of B&B's IFA network.

Its advisers sell a narrow range of financial products from a "panel" selected for them. Their "independence" is a source of much mockery among genuine IFAs. B&B contends that its products (and, by implication, its advisers) are designed to suit "Middle England". However, even if you accept such a lumping together of so many individual needs, that doesn't mean they would suit me.

B&B's proposals for a range of Individual Savings Accounts (ISAs) might be attractive (as its other savings rates undoubtedly are). However, we will only be in a better position to tell once other institutions announce their cash ISA rates after April 6.

But, you might ask, if B&B's products are so unattractive at present, why defend its mutuality? Partly because there are some savings accounts which are still highly competitive. And its mortgages, though not personally appealing, are also very good value.

And because, ultimately, I believe that mutuality must survive on the basis that, even if something is not always good for me, it may still benefit someone else. At some stage in the future there will almost certainly be something in the B&B range that suits my personal needs. Give and take, in other words.

Sure, it ain't always the most exciting (or financially rewarding) concept in the world. But allowing others a greater share in the annual pounds 110m members' profit-share from B&B - this once - has got to be better than greedily voting for a one-off set of shares worth pounds 750 from the society's flotation. Or am I wrong?

Comments