The drive towards popular share ownership appears to have ended and Sid may revert to the deposit account. If that happens we will have learnt nothing from the past 15 years

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The Independent Online
The last of the family silver has gone and the remaining pieces of the cutlery canteen have finally been sold. In fact, the last bit went only last month in the form of a lukewarm British Energy sell-off. The privatisation drive towards popular share ownership appears to have ended at last.

So was that it? Should we all now resign ourselves to the excitement of the building society deposit account and an occasional foray into a grey cash box locked for five years, known as a Tessa?

In my view the answer is no, but there is no denying that the atmosphere has changed. Gone is the drive to popular individual and direct share ownership. In its place I sense a more pragmatic view in the late, nervous Nineties.

Instead of "Sid" being hectored on the joys of share ownership, he now faces a new problem: if someone has taken over your privatisation company, what do you do with the money? Buy another stock? Probably not, it is far too risky.

Instead, Sid is more likely to revert to the deposit account. If that happens then we will have learnt nothing from the last 15 years. Two per cent in a building society with 2.2 per cent inflation means that yet again we are losing money.

Now is the time for the mutual funds to rise up and help the cause of greater investor understanding and wealth creation. Unit and investment trusts should step in and help Sid with clear, competitive products, free from technical jargon and supported by sensible information and direction. If not, then all the opportunities of the popular share ownership initiative will have all been a wasted experiment.

But is direct share ownership dead? Was the Thatcher privatisation campaign - actually started by Labour in 1977 when the first tranche of BP was sold off - just a jolly bunfight for Sid and the stockbrokers? Again, in my view, no. Direct share ownership will still continue to develop, but this time in a different form.

Next year we will be getting used to another ugly City term - de-mutualisation. This negative and uncreative-sounding term will positively effect many millions of us. Some of the largest building societies hand out their shares to members in 1997.

Over the next few years many will receive shares in floating building societies and insurance companies and, unfortunately, like the Sids before them, many will either just sell the shares swiftly or hide them in the drawer. I hope that this time our industry can take the opportunity to help savers develop their knowledge and understanding of investing for their future.

This is not all. Popular capitalism has other outposts which are still showing signs not just of survival but of growth and development. One area that is growing with greater vigour is that of employee share ownership. These days there are over 2,400 companies with some form of share ownership scheme.

Unfortunately, it is usually the schemes for large felines that hit the headlines but behind these, the majority of these firms issue stock to the workers of Britain on the scale of a small privatisation each year.

Cynics would say that these are just short-term share perks which are sold off swiftly to pay for the holiday. This patronising view is not true. Many beneficiaries of such schemes carefully husband their shares and shelter them in personal equity plans for a longer-term investment. The recent initiative from Angela Knight, the Treasury Minister, to reduce the minimum time-scales of the corporate save-as-you-earn schemes from three years will add further impetus to this growing area.

This underrated scheme should be highlighted far more. For once, all employees who have access to such a scheme can be assured of some benefit, if only from the tax-free clement of the savings scheme.

A further area of frenetic growth is in investment clubs. Here, from a very small level we have seen a mushrooming in the number of people interested in setting up and joining clubs to learn about investment and, heaven forbid, even enjoying it.

This has to be the best way for investors to learn about the peaks and pitfalls of direct stock market investment in a low-risk and responsible manner. And you don't even have to own an anorak. All over the country, private rooms over public bars are filled with earnest discussion over share values and investment opportunities.

So, as privatisations peter out it is not true that popular share ownership is dead, or even dying. But what is more important is that we should now be entering a new era of popular investment.

Why? Because the increasing pressure on us all to take on more responsibilities for ourselves leaves us little choice. As the state retreats we must take every opportunity to learn how to protect ourselves. Popular capitalism may have been fun for some while it lasted, but popular investment will be a necessity while we last.

Justin Urquhart-Stewart is business planning director at Barclays Stockbrokers.

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