LIFE is still hard for banks, especially the high-street variety. One of our list is government-owned, others are engaged in a vicious fight to entice customers with tasty offers, and one is a brave and innovative newcomer. All are fascinating – and well-known – companies in this vital and fast-changing sector.

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Mortgages are the thing that get British bank customers salivating, and First Direct made its claim for a bigger chunk of the UK market at the start of July when it slashed its introductory fee to just £99, something which led to a 40 per cent increase in calls about loans. Its rates are competitive – the most attractive loan is set at just 1.79 per cent above base rate – plus it consistently tops customer satisfaction surveys.

Of all the major UK banks, HSBC arguably emerged from the financial crisis with the least damage to its reputation and balance sheet, even escaping from its US mortgages venture Household relatively unharmed. It used the financial crisis to reposition itself as an Asia-focused bank and has also been extremely aggressive in the UK. It sparked competition in the mortgage market with the launch of a product with an interest-rate of just 1.99 per cent.

The black horse came galloping back into profit, to the tune of £1.6bn, in the first half of the year. True, it has been propped up by the tax-payer, but in a competitive market it has bounced back admirably, offering more in loans than customers are taking up, and offering competitive mortgage rates. Customer service is not its strong point, say surveys, but it is ahead of its government-imposed target of lending £44bn to business by 2011.

The first new high-street bank to launch in the UK for 100 years, Metro Bank aims to offer banking customers a “retail” experience. New customers will be able to open accounts in 15 minutes, and there will be free coin-counting machines – not to mention water for dogs. It aims to entice 10 per cent of London’s banking market into the 200 branches it plans to open over the coming decade. The jury’s out on whether it can convince the conservative British public, but this new hope makes it on to the list for sheer entrepreneurial vim.

Since it landed on these shores in 2004, the Spanish bank has become a household name, and its red and white will become an even more common sight on the high street following its purchase of 318 branches from RBS earlier this year. Although its so-called “siesta service” has attracted consumers’ ire, its aggressive stance during the banking crisis, snapping up Bradford & Bingley and Alliance & Leicester for knock-down prices, has shown it to be a fleet-footed bank fronted by better business brains than most.