Tyne & Wear

Northern Rock: Alistair Darling says 'lessons to learn'

Savers queuing outside Northern Rock Harrogate branch
Image caption Savers queued outside some branches to remove their cash

Five years ago images of people queuing outside branches of Northern Rock dominated the media.

All across the country depositors queued to take out their cash, after the Newcastle-based bank was forced to approach the Bank of England for emergency funding to continue in business.

The Rock had found itself squeezed, as American and world banks stopped lending it the cash it needed to survive.

It was a flawed business model that worked in the good years, but came spectacularly unstuck in 2007.

And nearly five months on from the run on the bank, the Rock was taken into government ownership, as no takeover bid or private sector solution proved acceptable.

'False basis'

As Chancellor of the Exchequer, Alistair Darling took that decision, cancelling the bank's shares and killing the dream that the Rock's chief executive Adam Applegarth had of the company becoming a real financial powerhouse.

Today, Mr Darling said the Rock's demise holds lessons for many other companies and their directors.

"The problem was that people assumed that if you were making money then everything must be OK," he said.

"Perhaps companies should ask themselves, if you are making an awful lot of money, why are you making all of this money?

"Is it well founded or is it being built on a completely false basis?

"If you look at the position that Northern Rock was in, it went from being a pretty small provincial building society, largely based in the North East, to one of the major mortgage providers for the whole country and they did it very, very quickly.

"They just carried on as if nothing was going to go wrong."

'Stealing shares'

The Rock's key directors declined opportunities to defend their policies - or express themselves culpable for its fate.

But five years on plenty of other people do want to have their say.

One of them is Sylvia Murphy, from Cramlington in Northumberland, who received 1,000 25p shares in 1997 when the Rock de-mutualised and changed from building society to bank.

Having hit the heights of £12 a share, Ms Murphy thought they would provide a financial cushion for the retirement she is now enjoying.

However, with nationalisation the shares were deemed by an independent valuer to be worthless - a decision upheld in the UK and European courts.

Image caption Former Chancellor Alistair Darling said firms should be cautious if they are making "too much money"

She said of Alistair Darling: "If I met him today I would accuse him of stealing my shares.

"People like me are our banks and building societies. We make them up. He has stolen from me."

Mr Darling expresses sympathy for people like Ms Murphy, but has a caveat.

"For people who put their money into Northern Rock - who bought shares - it's an absolute tragedy.

"Our problem was we couldn't distinguish between those shareholders and people who had quite deliberately bought shares after the crash hoping to cash in, because there was quite a big element of that," the former chancellor said.

Robin Ashby, who formed the Northern Rock Small Shareholders Group in Newcastle, detects tragedy elsewhere in the story.

His association lobbied for the rights not only of small shareholders but also Rock staff and the Northern Rock Foundation, the organisation that gave millions of pounds to regional good causes.

With the Rock now part of Richard Branson's Virgin empire, the North East has lost a company quoted on the stock market yet headquartered in the region.

According to Mr Ashby that is not good.

"We don't have that flagship company anymore," he said.

"A company that says the North East is a dynamic region and has a future away from its old coal, steel and shipbuilding. It's very sad that the Rock went."

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