My Lords in the absence of the noble Lord, Lord Holmes, I shall move this amendment on his behalf.
One particular problem that has dogged us for decades is the lack of funding, including sufficient credit facilities, to our critical SME community. We know that SMEs are considered to be the backbone of the economy, the largest private employer, the large companies of tomorrow and so on, but despite this, the funds have never really flowed through from our traditional financial services sector to support SME activity and rightful ambition. The British Business Bank put it perfectly in its March 2022 report:
“Historically, SMEs are underserved by the finance sector, and often don't have the same characteristics that banks and other lenders like about large corporations. This includes lengthy credit histories, detailed audits and financial accounts, and a large portfolio of assets for collateral on debts. For start-ups, whose business models are unproven and yet to be deemed creditworthy, these problems are even more pronounced”.
This is not a universal problem experienced by SMEs around the world. It is done differently elsewhere. In Germany, for example, in 2021 SME funding was more than €600 billion; in the UK in the same period, it was just £57 billion. Even when all the necessary adjustments are applied, it is not a great picture, nor a growth picture. It is hardly surprising then that we are seeing a post-Covid trend of SMEs moving away from the traditional financial services sector. Again, the British Business Bank has noted:
“After the end of the coronavirus loans facility in March 2021, an interesting trend to emerge was that SMEs began to move away from large banks for their finance needs. Instead, challenger and specialist banks made up 51% of lending in 2021, compared with 32% in 2020”.
When it comes to the regional dimension, it just gets worse for SMEs, with those in London receiving over 70% of equity investment, with just 30% for the rest of the UK. This is obviously not great news for the economy, but it also results in lower levels of community and differing levels of well-being. How can we level up this country if we do not urgently address this issue of the extreme and unacceptable regional funding differentials for our SMEs? Although a perennial problem, it is raised now because there are two important pieces of legislation that provide an opportunity to do something about it: the Financial Services and Markets Bill, which has been going through your Lordships’ House; and the levelling-up Bill which is before us. I think a critical need for regional mutual banks is an essential part of the solution.
The clear intention of the amendment in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Holmes, is threefold: first, to dramatically increase financial inclusion for our SME businesses; secondly, to develop an effective patient capital ecosystem across the UK; thirdly, to reignite the positive reality of friendly societies and mutuals. The amendment would force the consideration of current capital adequacy requirements. Are they fit for what we want across all potential financial service models?
It is also essential that such potential sources of regional finance are seen very much against the backdrop of digital transformation. Such banks need a physical presence in all our communities, with business bankers ready to support customers at each growth stage. Benefits must also encompass full digital functionality, alongside the physical. If got right, such banks could bring to bear another element of the financial and digital inclusion story, with the financial inclusion potentially driving the digital.
None of this is about lowering thresholds for SME finance. If we support SMEs by increasing the range and number of regional mutual banks, then the banks will do what they do best and SMEs will thrive, as will the communities and the towns and cities in which they are based. Through this single intervention, one of the fundamental planks on which levelling up will come will have been effectively laid.
As we build our way out of Covid, there could barely be a better moment to consider the benefits of regional mutual banks, built in our great communities with close customer connections and, crucially, with an interest and a stake in all those future economic, social, individual and organisational stories of success. We need regional flows of finance to enable and empower more, and more regionally diverse, SMEs. Regional mutual banks can be an essential part of delivering this, and the Government should look very carefully at the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Holmes, and consider including it within their levelling-up brief. I beg to move.