Welcome to this December newsletter from the Customer Union for Ethical Banking, the independent union for customers of The Co-operative Bank.
In this newsletter, an update from our Gathering, but first - breaking news on a new bid for the bank.
Coventry Building Society bids for the Co-op
News broke this week that Coventry Building Society has made an offer to buy the Co-operative Bank.
By now we have seen plenty of names put forward as potential bidders to buy the Co-op Bank in the last few weeks, and this may well come to nothing, like previous offers.
However it is news we welcome warmly, both because it would bring the bank back into mutual ownership, and because of Coventry's ethical credentials. The building society – which is Britain’s second largest, and is about twice as large as the Co-op Bank, is a bit of an ethical pioneer amongst building societies too. It carries the Fair Tax Mark certification, is B Corporation certified, and is a “recommended” brand at Ethical Consumertoo.
This opens a path for the bank’s current private-equity owners to sell in a way that upholds the bank’s core values and those of our members, and would result in a larger and stronger mutually-owned ethical bank. Let’s – cautiously – hope something comes of this.
Update from our Gathering
On Saturday 18th November we held our annual Gathering of members and supporters, meeting virtually on Zoom. The meeting was probably our best-attended Gathering yet. Here’s a short report:
The first hour: discussion with the bank
As in previous years, the first hour of the Gathering was focused on a presentation and discussion from the bank. Catherine Douglas, Chief People and Sustainability Officer, as well as Deb Darlington, Director of Brand, Marketing & Communications, presented on the bank’s recent performance and sustainability work.
Catherine emphasised the bank’s recovery in financial performance, and its first acquisition in more than a decade with the purchase of Sainsbury’s mortgage book. She also talked about the work the bank has been doing to improve its service to customers, resulting in improved scores with TrustPilot; its status as a Real Living Wage employer; and its campaign with Shelter for reforms in the rental sector.
Questions for the bank focused on issues around branch closures and long call waiting times for telephone banking, which frustrate many bank customers. The bank assures us there are no plans for further branch closures, and that call waiting times are coming down, and are at their lowest level since 2020.
Catherine was also asked about the recent decision from the Financial Ombudsman Service that the bank should pay redress to customers who were treated unfairly by its subsidiary MAS5. In response she emphasised that the FOS had concluded there was no evidence of bad faith or dishonesty from the bank, and that although it is disappointed by the ruling, it is now moving ahead with next steps in line with the ruling.
We really value the bank’s annual attendance at our gathering, and the opportunity it gives for us all to grill the bank on issues that are on our minds.
The second hour: discussion about the bank
The second hour of the meeting, without the bank present, proceeded with a discussion focused on the bank’s ownership. Rob Harrison from the Customer Union began with a brief overview of where we are, reflecting on our successful crowdfunder and showing our video which sets out who we are and our plans to raise funds for our next 10 years.
We then shared some of the findings of our research into setting up a vehicle to buy a customer-owned stake in the bank. Rob shared examples of other places were customers had bought stakes in organisations they cared about, from football supporters’ trusts to the Campaign for Real Ale’s member investment club, and how these and other examples could be used to develop a model that could be used to build co-operative customer stakes in businesses everywhere.
We were also honoured to be joined by Jean Louis Bancel, former president of France’s Crédit Coopératif and of Co-operatives Europe. Jean Louis spoke about different structures for our research to explore, including Coop Exchange, a mobile app that allows anyone in the world to invest in coops. He also shared reflections on how consumers can build their power.
We then discussed the practicalities of buying a stake in the bank, including the prices paid and where and when shares are traded, and discussed the next steps of this research. It was great to get members’ thoughts and input on this work in progress, and we hope to hold an event to share our findings and plans when the research is finalised.
Thanks to all who joined the Gathering, and to everyone reading this newsletter and supporting and following our work at the Customer Union.
As this is likely to be our last newsletter of 2023, we would like to wish you all a happy and peaceful Christmas break.
We’ll be back in touch in 2024,
With best wishes,
The Save Our Bank team
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