Outback revolts against bankers

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AUSTRALIA'S embattled rural communities are in revolt against the country's big four banks, with dozens of towns and villages queuing up to start their own community lending institutions instead.

The revolt has been triggered by the closure of bank branches, one-sixth of which have disappeared from the high streets in the past four years. But it has been stoked by growing resentment in the outback against the banks' rising fees, profits andexecutive salaries.

In the railway town of Henty, New South Wales, pensioners complain that they must now pay two dollars simply to cash their weekly pension cheques across the counter.

The Commonwealth, which announced further fee increases this week, was the last of five banks to pull out of Henty's "main drag". Locals saw the Commonwealth's closure as a portent of disaster, for times are difficult.

At the pawnbroker's, the manageress has dropped interest rates to help young mothers who were bringing in tables and chairs to raise cash for groceries. "Country life is becoming ... a very sad state," she said.

But Henty's high street became the setting for a fightback. A retired farmer, Milton Taylor, had heard earlier this yearabout a small country bank, The Bendigo. "Some people gave us everything they had," he said, referring to the amounts he received to start the Henty Community Branch of the Bendigo Bank. In only a fortnight pounds 100,000 was raised to buy and fit out premises, recruit staff and open for business.

But over the past two weeks, more than pounds 2m has flooded in to the bank, as locals stampeded out of the big four in favour of the newcomer, whose profits must be invested in the community.

Bendigo's inspiration was Mohammed Yunus, founder of the Grameen Bank in Bangladesh, last week named winner of the Sydney Peace Prize.