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Last edited 25 Feb 2021
As an institution which offers financial services, a building society is a mutual organisation owned by its members who are also the stockholders. The main function of a building society is to offer mortgages and savings facilities for its members. However, following the banking law changes in the 1980s, it has become quite common for building societies to offer current accounts, personal loans and credit cards. Given their slightly changed offering, building societies can compete with banks across most consumer banking products.
The origins of the building society date back to the 18th century with the creation of Ketley’s Building Society in Birmingham in 1775. Others were to follow and eventually the phenomenon, having spread outside the Midlands, numbered hundreds of societies scattered throughout the country. The majority of towns had a building society, often named after the town or the county, e.g Leicester BS, Yorkshire BS, etc.
Since their early beginnings, building societies traditionally offered facilities for savings and provided mortgages for home buyers. The interest paid on savings accounts has in the past tended to be higher than the equivalent offered by banks.
The UK has around 45 building societies with total reserves in the region of £360bn. But the number of societies has dwindled in comparison to the historic number. Recent years have seen mergers and acquisitions, closures and the effects of the 2008 financial crisis. In addition, those which reported losses were allowed by the government to become banks.
The phenomenon of de-mutualisation (or privatisation) saw societies convert from mutual companies to joint-stock companies with members getting windfall payments as a result. Very often, the process ended in a complete takeover by a bank.
Unlike banks which are owned by their shareholders, building societies are not listed on the stock market and have no shareholders. Importantly, they do not operate solely for profit but for the requirements and benefits of their members. As a result, they can offer more competitive services than banks. However, although banks can raise almost limitless amounts of money through the money markets, regulations control building society activities: only half of their lending can be funded by debt to non-members.
Becoming a member of a building society is usually achieved by opening a savings account and depositing a cash sum. Irrespective of the amount of money deposited, becoming a member brings voting rights on a one-member-one-vote basis. In this way, members can influence policy and appoint directors.
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