The Nationwide must keep the mutual faith

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The Independent Online
THE HALIFAX is so bloated with money that it sits like Jabba the Hutt from Star Wars, a barely moving, menacing presence, demanding attention. It's not alone. None of the building societies turned banks has exactly dazzled with new-found dynamism since making the leap to a lucrative stock-market listing.

Enter the Nationwide BS, which announces its annual results on Wednesday. The figures seem certain to be staggeringly good. We had a hint last week when the society abolished pounds 12m-worth of service fees for its customers. An internet-access service is coming soon. And Nationwide head office in Swindon is trialling a cash machine which doesn't use PIN numbers: customers are identified by the unique pattern of their eyes. Things are moving fast, and the Nationwide is about as responsive and dynamic as it's possible to be in a world of suits.

All of that counts for nothing in the face of next month's challenge to the Nationwide's mutual status. (A mutual society is owned by its customers, and there are no profits as such - the surplus goes into reserves or is used to benefit savers and borrowers.) Five million members will be eligible to vote on a resolution which would force the society to take steps to convert to PLC status. If this gets passed, members would give up their stakes in the society and get a one-off windfall of about pounds 2,000 each in return.

In the face of all this, Nationwide's chief executive Brian Davis will need the strength of a Jedi knight. He fought off a challenge last year, but collective greed may well spell the end for the Nationwide this summer. Which would give all the lurking high-street Jabbas a chance to spend a few of their spare millions on outbidding each other to buy the society.

If all this happens, it will be terrible timing, because the Government has started acting like a backup force drafted in to help defend the beleaguered building society movement. The Government wants mutual societies to be its AWPs - Approved Welfare Providers. Get used to AWPs: they could be the biggest thing to happen on the welfare and pensions front for 50 years. It's the vision of welfare reform minister Frank Field, and if the plans go forward, AWPs will provide welfare benefits, insurance and stakeholder pensions to millions of people.

If this happens, then building societies (and friendly societies) have found themselves a secure future. And it looks like the banks and non- mutual life firms won't get a look in, because they aren't run for the benefit of their members.

Anyone who is a member of a building society, even those who stuck the money in there in the hope of making a quick windfall profit, has had plenty of time to see the new banks in action. Or inaction. Was it worth it? Yes, probably, for people who enjoyed fancy foreign holidays they could otherwise never have afforded. And yes, certainly, for the fat cat directors of the ex-societies. But for the rest of us, with mortgages and savings and continuing financial commitments? No, it definitely was not.

Anyone who cares about the way we do business in this country and wants to see a revolution in favour of the customer, should keep faith with the building society movement. Big changes are afoot and the giant Nationwide must stay mutual to give the sector some clout.