Welcome and opening Keynote session

Rob Pheasey, Building Societies Association Chair and Chief Executive of Marsden Building Society

Rob opened the 2024 Building Societies Annual Conference noting that this was by far the biggest conference to date, with a record 1,000+ delegates registered over the two days and over 70 speakers ready to lead the many different sessions. 

He then reflected on what the sector – building societies and credit unions – has achieved since the last conference, and what the year ahead might hold.

Looking first at borrowing members, rising interest rates coupled with high house prices, mean that buying a home now is the most expensive it has been since the 1950’s. However, as a sector, we have continued to help people to buy their own home, with more than half of our lending last year to first-time homebuyers. 

Despite the financial pressure on households, building societies’ lower-risk approach to lending decisions meant we have proportionately fewer loans in arrears compared to the wider mortgage market, and the overall proportion of accounts in arrears has so far remained low by historical standards.

Turning to savers, our sector continued to offer competitive rates resulting in an £18.9 billion growth in cash savings, at a time when savings balances at banks and other deposit takers fell by £6.7 billion.

Consumers are clearly recognising that they receive more savings interest with a building society, along with better customer service, than they would get with a bank.

However, we mustn’t forget about the one in seven adults who have no savings at all. That’s 8 million people with no financial resilience, nothing to fall back on when an unexpected cost comes along.

Whilst there is a role for government in helping to build a nation of savers, we have not sat back to wait for action. The BSA is the force behind UK Savings Week, a campaign on a mission to encourage good savings habits. 

Rob touched on the regulation and legislation that has impacted our sector, including the new Consumer Duty and changes to the Credit Union Act, along with the private members bill reviewing the Building Societies Act which is currently going through the parliamentary process. These changes will support building societies’ opportunities to grow and our ability to compete fairly with external shareholder-owned competitors, as well as enable us to better support our customers. 

Rob also thanked the headline sponsors - Mutual Vision, Pexa, Protiviti, Smart Money People, Sopra Banking Software, Target Group and Workday - and the conference’s other sponsors – Amdocs, Avanade, Manchester Building Society, Praesta Partners LLP, The Evolution Group; Sopra Steria and Target Group - for their support in making the event a success.

Keynote - Andy Burnham, Mayor of Greater Manchester

Andy joined our conference just days after being re-elected Mayor of Greater Manchester for a third term.

The general theme for his Keynote was the Importance of Place. 

He highlighted how the devolution of power and decision-making creates opportunities for building societies, credit unions and combined authorities to work together for the benefit of everyone locally. 
He gave examples of some of the steps he has taken as he continues to serve the Greater Manchester area, such as bringing services into local ownership, such as buses, and then working with their local credit union to provide interest-free weekly payments for annual public transport costs.

On housing, Andy said “Our residents can’t have good lives if they don’t have good homes”.  We therefore aim to build 10,000 homes for social rent, perhaps an opportunity to work with a building society? 

The Greater Manchester combined authority is already working with the Green Finance Institute on retro-fitting housing in the area, but more can be done to achieve a wide-scale retrofit home improvement programme. Can building societies help with this?

Finally, Andy talked about the young people looking for work. Halls of Apprentices could be a practical, employer-driven solution to enable all young people to have an opportunity beyond the university route.

This Keynote provided much for societies and credit unions to think about.

Keynote: Robin Fieth, Building Societies Association Chief Executive

The theme for this keynote was the March of the Mutuals.

Robin opened his keynote by looking back at his first conference speech 10 years ago, and the future strategy and aspiration outlined for the sector at that time: for building societies, credit unions and the wider financial mutual sector to be at the heart of the future of a properly diverse, competitive and resilient UK financial services sector.

Since then we have campaigned with government and regulators for a properly diverse sector, enabling consumer choice, competition and structural resilience.

In a world dominated by the shareholder ownership mindset, we need a levelling of the playing field between building societies and banks. Our sector is inter-generational, businesses for the benefit of our communities and society. We need a focus on UK business, not UK PLC. 

Next year will be the 250th anniversary of the first building society and we will have a new government. There is support for co-operatives and mutuals right across the political spectrum, and this is our time to sieze the opportunity. We need a new covenant between us (building societies, credit unions and the wider mutual sector), government and society.

Labour has committed to doubling the size of co-operative and mutual economy, and that should be our ambition whatever the outcome of the election. For building societies, that will be doubling memberships from 26m to 52m over ten years, underpinning our role in improving and building society. 

The challenge has been set.