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Lib Dems hatch county bank plan to spur local economy

By Western Morning News  |  Posted: September 01, 2012

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Devon and Cornwall could get their own "local" banks under Liberal Democrat proposals to increase lending to businesses and families.

The junior coalition partner also wants government-sanctioned local bodies driving the economic recovery to get access to state cash, to revitalise communities.

The proposals will be put to delegates at the Lib Dem conference in Brighton among measures to get the nation's financial fortunes back on track. Among the most eye-catching is to turn branches of the state-owned Royal Bank of Scotland into community banks.

Commentators fear small businesses in particular are being denied access to finance, and "local" banks would be more willing to lend than multi-nationals.

The party's policy paper, which will be voted on by delegates, states: "Lending decisions are increasingly taken on an automated or 'tick-box' basis by computer systems or individuals with little knowledge of the relevant business or local economic conditions."

Lib Dem MP for Torbay Adrian Sanders said: "It sounds a wonderful idea. To have decisions taken closer in the way they were in days gone by bank managers.

"The idea is one that will prove extremely popular with business and the public, having more fiscal autonomy within the local community, rather than being dictated to by people hundreds of miles away."

Ministers were recently pressed on the case for local community banking and the break-up of RBS, which is 83% owned by taxpayers.

The Tory MP Guy Opperman has argued the UK has a "missing tier" of banking, and pointed out that 70% of German lending to SMEs is via local banks.

Hampshire already has a county bank, backed by the local chamber of commerce and local authorities.

Breaking up RBS could be used to form the basis of devolved local community banks, which would coincide with a county or city council area, he said.

Pressed at the start of the summer over whether breaking up RBS into local banks would be looked at, Treasury Minister David Gauke said it would be a decision for the Chancellor George Osborne.

The Lib Dem policy document, to be debated at the Lib Dem conference in Brighton on September 24, also calls for a portion of future rounds of a £1.3 billion Government fund to be earmarked for Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs).

The Westcountry has two LEPs – one covering Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly and another for Devon and Somerset – but do not have significant budgets.

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