The East Manchester Credit Union had humble beginnings, originally run by volunteers serving a small community. Len Grant talks to its first paid worker, Christine Moore, and discovers how it has grown to serve 5,000 members across the city with a staff of 20.
Len: Tell me something about the early days.
Christine: It began in 1991 as the Beswick and Openshaw Credit Union. Friends and family would join together in a share-based saving scheme which meant you could take out a loan only if you had built up savings. The scheme was run by volunteers and only open for say, an hour a week, at the church hall.
By 2000, when I became the first paid staff member, there were less than 100 members, most of whom knew each other, and only a few thousand pounds on loan.
Len: It seemed like a good idea, so why so few members?
Christine: Yes, it was a good idea and our chair, Tim Presswood, recognised that credit unions needed to be more professional if they were to attract new members. He won funding which paid for my position and allowed us to open a shop on Beswick Precinct where we had a higher profile. The name changed then to the East Manchester Credit Union. You have to remember at that time, 79% of residents were on some kind of benefit, doorstep lending was rife, and there were no banks or even ATMs.
Len: So raising the profile must have helped?
Christine: Yes, it did. But our initial growth was also helped by the Eastserve computer project. New Deal for Communities had 4,000 subsidised computers on offer at £200 each. They guaranteed a loan scheme where we could provide instant loans to residents so they could buy one of the computers and get online. Before then, our members could only take out a loan if they had saved first. It was expected that only a quarter of the residents would need finance, but in reality 75% needed to borrow the £200. That was quite a steep learning curve for us.
Len: And now, do you still insist members save before they can borrow?
Christine: It’s changed completely now. We do offer immediate loans because we’re ‘competing’ against doorstep moneylenders. But we encourage new members to save and manage their money more efficiently. People find it empowering to have savings and sometimes it’s for the very first time. The advantage with the Credit Union is that there is just one loan and one – smaller – repayment rather than dozens of different ones. Managing your cash is more difficult on benefits: there’s no scope to increase your income by earning a bit more here and there.
Len: So if the Credit Union a soft touch?
Christine: When people get into problems, and providing they tell us what’s going on, then we are likely to be more sympathetic than other lenders but no, we’re not a soft touch. We have to distinguish between the ‘can’t pays’ and the ‘won’t pays’ and we follow strict credit control procedures for those who won’t repay what they’ve borrowed.
Len: And now?
Christine: We still have a branch in Beswick, but we’ve taken over smaller unions around the city who were at risk of folding and we are now the Manchester Credit Union. Our principles are still the same, but we now have more opportunities to help those on low incomes mange their finances.