Developing Credit Unions – Glasgow City Council

Posted on 29th April, 2014

Background

Credit Unions (CUs) are an important mechanism for addressing some of the major financial inclusion challenges that exist across Scotland.  As well as providing low cost loans, CUs also encourage the development of a regular savings habit amongst their members.  By offering such services, they help their members to manage their finances and avoid the pitfalls of more expensive and sometimes unregulated lending.

This case study highlights the approach that has been taken by Glasgow City Council (GCC), which has supported the development of CUs as self sufficient and sustainable social enterprises and which has also resulted in a major expansion of CU membership across the city.

Organisation

As part of a wider portfolio of anti-poverty initiatives, GCC has undertaken a programme of support since 2001, which has encouraged the development of CUs throughout the city. The Council recognised that by promoting saving and providing affordable credit, CUs had the potential to play a major strategic role in the fight against financial exclusion and poverty experienced by many of Glasgow’s citizens on low income and state benefits.

Central to this has been the encouragement that has been given to establishing and supporting a Strategic Development Group, open to all Glasgow CUs.  Established in 2003, this group has provided a forum for Glasgow CUs to network, discuss common issues, exchange good practice and develop a programme of collective action, which benefits all CUs. To widen the role played by CUs in economic development and financial inclusion, The Council has supported the Group by bringing in external contributors and delivery partners. This has enabled CUs to work to city-wide social and economic strategies and maximise opportunities for partnership working with complementary organisations.

A range of practical support measures has been put in place, with the overall package of support developed with members of the strategic development group and following a survey of CUs’ needs.  Support has included a marketing initiative, including TV and radio advertising campaigns.  A CU website has also been developed to promote the benefits of CU membership and promote the range of services available. (www.cucity.co.uk )

A comprehensive programme of training and development for CU staff and volunteers has also been supported, covering areas such as CU specific training courses and specialist topics such as business/succession planning and money advice. As a direct result, the appetite for training among CUs has improved immeasurably over a number of years and has helped professionalise the mindset of staff and volunteers.

GCC has also supported CUs in moving into shop front premises, including utilising Council-owned properties.  The Council has also agreed 100% business rates relief for CUs.  This has facilitated the movement into more highly visible premises, raising the CUs’ profile within local communities and helping to grow membership levels.

A key objective of the support has been to encourage more efficient and effective working methods and to generally drive up the capacity and professionalism of CUs.  GCC CU development officers have also encouraged a ‘buddying’ system, whereby stronger and more established CUs offer support and encouragement to less experienced neighbouring CUs.

The support provided by GCC has been catalytic in nature and has provided a significant kick-start to CU development across the city.  A key principle of the approach has been to gradually work towards a position whereby CUs can be self-sustaining social enterprises, which ultimately will not require relying on public subsidy.  Whilst that goal has not yet been attained, significant progress towards its achievement has been made.

Key Benefits

The support provided to encourage credit union development has resulted in a major membership growth over the past decade.  From a base of only 3% of Glaswegians being members of credit unions, membership has grown significantly since 2001 and currently stands at around 25%.

Glasgow is now in the position where it has a larger CU membership than any other city in the United Kingdom.  This includes over 160,000 members across 34 CUs, with a financial asset portfolio in excess of £220m.

A key point of the Glasgow experience is that developing a sector such as CUs requires a long-term and sustained commitment to working alongside the CUs.  One –off, sporadic or disjointed support to the sector would not have resulted in the significant strides that have been achieved across the city.

To discuss Glasgow’s credit union development, please contact the Council’s cooperative advocate, Eddie Percie. He can be reached at: eddie.percy@drs.glasgow.gov.uk.