On 15th July 2019, we celebrated 20 years since Bristol Credit Union was first registered with the Registry of Friendly Societies and became a credit union. We have grown to over 13,000 members and junior savers, looking after £8.8 million in assets. We also have nearly 700 cooperatives, businesses, community groups and charities from across Bristol and Bath that are members. Over 20 years we have helped more than 33,000 people across our area to start saving.
We have lent an amazing £30 million of affordable loans and approved 42,820 loan applications. We currently have £5.4 million on loan in the local community. We’ve worked out that choosing our affordable lending has saved our members at least £17.4m in loan interest charges.
Bristol Credit Union initially grew through the joining together of smaller credit unions across the Bristol and Bath area. The first credit union to register in Bristol was the Malago Valley Credit Union (Hartcliffe and Withywood), which first registered in 1997 with 16 members. The credit unions in Bristol were started thanks to the vision and dedication of many volunteers in our local communities without whom we couldn’t have done it. We also had support from a development worker Bridget McHale, who was employed to help establish and achieve registration for the credit unions in the city.
The credit unions of Bristol got their first paid employee in 2002, when our current Deputy CEO Kate Hanks, who had been heavily involved previously as a volunteer, was appointed as a Project Officer for Money-Go-Round, the Bristol Inner City Credit Union. In 2005 our current CEO James Berry was employed by Social Enterprise Works to help develop the credit unions of Bristol and facilitate a merger that would allow them to grow. James had previously joined as a Director of Money-Go-Round in 2003 and had also been heavily involved as a volunteer.
In September 2006 Money-Go-Round (Bristol Inner City Credit union, managed by Kate Hanks), Malago Valley Credit Union (managed by Andrew Russell) and Bedminster & Knowle Credit Union (first managed by Mike Crafer) merged to form Bristol Credit Union with a combined membership of 1,200. This meant that Bristol Credit Union was registered for the first time with the Financial Conduct Authority. In April 2007 Purdown Credit Union joined (first managed by David Jones, then Jan Clarke), followed by the Bristol City Credit Union (Bristol City Council employees) in March 2008. In January of 2010, Bristol Credit Union merged with Bath & North East Somerset Credit Union, bringing Bristol Credit Union to Bath residents.
Move to Stokes Croft
Before 2008 Bristol Credit Union’s offices were located on the ground floor of the Sofa Project building in Old Market. Talking Money (then Bristol Debt Advice Centre) was also based in the same building. This enabled the credit union to form strong working partnerships with both organisations. Talking Money became one of our first Employer Partners, enabling their employees to save and borrow through payroll deduction.
In January 2008 Bristol Credit Union opened its doors for the first time in Stokes Croft. The seven-strong team worked through the Christmas holidays to get the branch open for members in the New Year, even going in on Christmas Day! The opening of 112 Cheltenham Road meant that Bristol Credit Union had our own face-to-face branch. The branch was officially opened by then DWP Minister James Plunkett a few months later.
In 2013 our office operations including the Member Services, Lending and Finance teams moved out of the Cheltenham Road branch into new offices in Stokes Croft. This has allowed the number of staff to grow to our current 19-strong team, whilst maintaining our face-to-face service in the branch.
In 2018 our branch and staff were part of the filming for the BBC documentary series ‘A Matter of Life and Debt’ which featured the stories of credit union members from across the UK. The program helped to raise awareness of the benefits of borrowing local from a credit union.
In August 2018 we installed solar panels on the roof of our main offices. Since then we have managed to save 2313 kg of CO2, the equivalent of planting 7.7 trees.
Our service points are a vital way of bringing credit union services directly into the local communities of Bristol and Bath. Many of the service points have existed since before the merging of the credit unions and are still going strong today, providing a vital community service. Our oldest service points are Barton Hill Settlement, North Bristol Advice Centre and Southdown Methodist Church. We really appreciate the organisations and volunteers that have, and continue to host us, ensuring that all members have access to our services.
We began a partnership with Emmaus in 2004, offering Emmaus companions in the area savings accounts to help manage and save their money.
For over 10 years Bristol Credit Union has been working with the Stop Loan Sharks Campaign. As a core partner of the Anti-Illegal Money Lending Team, we help to raise awareness of the danger of loan sharks and the availability of affordable, secure lending from the credit union.
In 2011 we started a partnership with Bath & North East Somerset Council's Homefinders service. Through this we are able to provide interest-free loans for homeless people to enable them to find a home faster through the private rental sector.
In 2012 we began working with Bristol Pound, providing the digital Bristol Pound accounts in a regulated financial institution with backing from the Financial Services Compensation Scheme - a first for any local currency in the UK. We continue to support them by offering businesses and individuals the ability to hold Bristol Pounds in their account, helping to keep £B circulating in the local economy.
During 2014 we partnered with two local organisations to support them with their community projects. Our lending helped South Bristol Sports Centre to build six all-weather five-a-side football pitches, a vital community resource. We also helped Bristol Energy Cooperative to become one of the country’s largest community energy generators.
In March 2018 we began to support Bristol City Council with the Vulnerable Persons Resettlement Scheme, which is part of the nationwide effort to help secure accommodation for refugees (many from Syria) and assist them in financial inclusion as well as broader integration.
We have joined Co-operatives UK, a network for Britain’s co-operative businesses in June 2019. This will allow us to continue to work with and support our fellow co-operatives in the area, working with them to provide mutual banking and support for all.
The support we offer
Improving our members’ financial health is very important at BCU and one way we can do this is to make the process of saving and borrowing as easy as possible. Working with employers across the Bristol and Bath area, we offer employees the opportunity to save and borrow through their payroll. These relationships have been integral to the credit union’s growth. Some of our longest partnerships include Bristol City Council (starting with the Bristol City CU merge), United Communities and Curo.
The way that we offer our services has changed considerably over the 20 years. From cash deposits and paper records in the early days, we launched our website in 2006, took our first online membership application in 2012 and our first online loan application in 2014.
Following the collapse of the Farepak hamper scheme in 2006, BCU began offering a Christmas Saver account, to give our members a safe way to save for their Christmas expenditure.
Junior savers have always been a key part of Bristol Credit Union, with junior savers among the initial members of BCU. Using grant funding we were able to launch the Money Munchers Junior Savings Account, providing children with guidance and incentives for saving their money, teaching the benefits of saving money from an early age. St Patrick’s Primary School in Redfield opened their own savings club with our support, where the children get involved with collecting the savings and are rewarded for saving regularly, no matter how much. We are also part of the LifeSavers scheme, working with 6 schools across Bristol to help create lifelong savers, with a similar school savings club approach.
In July 2008 we began our Rent Direct project with Bristol City Council. This helps tenants on benefits to manage their money and ensure that they can pay their rent each month, securing a roof over their heads and protecting them from rent arrears. It also encourages and supports our local landlords to house tenants on benefits in the private rental sector. This scheme has become increasingly important as tenants switch to Universal Credit.
In June 2009, by renting space on the Co-operative Bank’s main-frame we were able to offer a current account to our members for the first time. However, this service was withdrawn by the Co-operative Bank in 2015 and we moved to offering the prepaid Engage card, as well as supporting our members to open bank accounts with other providers.
In November 2018 we started to offer solar loans to allow people to take advantage of the FIT agreement and generate clean electricity for their homes. Whilst the FIT scheme has now ended, we still offer a solar loan to promote producing clean electricity.
In 2005 with the help of the Growth Fund Bristol Credit Union switched from share-based lending, where members had to save for 12 weeks prior to borrowing, to capacity-based lending. This meant that the credit union was able to offer more immediate help and to a greater number of people. The Growth Fund (a DWP initiative) continued to support the credit union until 2010 and aimed to provide credit unions nationally with the capital and revenue support to increase the amount of affordable credit available to people who would otherwise borrow from high-cost lenders.
In May 2018 we launched our first-ever Deferred Shares offer to our members. For a limited period, we offered our members the chance to invest in their credit union, allowing us to continue our growth and scale up our positive social and environmental impact.
In May 2019, we secured an amazing £500k investment from Bristol City Council, in partnership with Bristol and Bath Regional Capital, as well as a further £475k investment. These investments will allow us to triple the credit union in size over the next five years, helping us to increase our presence in local communities around Bristol, improve our online user experience and increase the number of affordable loans we can make to people who need to borrow and want to choose a local, ethical, mutual service.
In November 2017, we were awarded the highest possible 5-star rating for our personal loan product from the Fairbanking Foundation, an award we continue to hold.
The Fairbanking Foundation is a national organisation aimed at encouraging financial providers to improve the financial well-being of their customers. Bristol Credit Union passed stringent assessment criteria and the 5-star mark recognises how our loans help people to borrow better.