City & Business: Merge and be damned

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The Independent Online
JUST when you thought the building society industry would never be the same again, along comes a deal which shows that old attitudes die hard in this sleepiest of financial backwaters.

When Lloyds Bank bid pounds 1.7bn for the Cheltenham & Gloucester last month, it demonstrated vividly that the value of a society could be unlocked for its ordinary savers and borrowers, who are being offered huge windfalls.

Some of the more switched-on societies have grasped the significance of the deal and are now contemplating big 'loyalty bonuses' - financed out of reserves - as a way of persuading their members to let them stay mutual.

Yet that kind of thinking has not permeated the North of England building society, which last week announced plans to merge with its larger neighbour, the Northern Rock. NoE members will receive a nominal bonus of around pounds 50, roughly one-tenth of the amount that a Lloyds Bank-style buyer would be able to offer them.

NoE's presentation of the merger was dismal. The only reasons chairman Ron Shiel came up with for the deal was that it would create a 'stronger' society and would protect and create jobs in the North-east. The first was a red herring. Depositors are well enough protected not to fear for the safety of their savings. The second was laudable, but doubtful. Mr Shiel admits the merger will, in fact, lead to job losses (though no compulsory redundancies).

No reason was given as to why it would directly benefit the society's 300,000 depositors and borrowers - its legal owners - who have to vote on the proposal. Given that sort of cavalier treatment, who could blame them if they were to welcome a hostile bidder with open arms?