A partnership between Credit Unions and Belfast City Council could make £100 million available for social investment…

John Hume once said the Credit Union movement that of “all the things I’ve been doing, it’s the thing I’m proudest of because no movement has done more good for the people of Ireland, north and south, than the credit union movement.”

This is some acknowledgement from a Nobel Peace Laureate but then again he was a founder member of Derry Credit Union and at the age of 27 he became the youngest ever President of the Irish League of Credit Unions in 1964.

Over 50 years later, the credit union movement, a self-help co-operative financial organisation has grown from strength to strength.  Credit Unions are at the heart of local communities with 547,546 adult members and 102,799 junior depositors in NI with total savings of £1,319billion, £538.5 million in loans and total assets of £1.55billion

Now the credit union movement is eager to play a role in supporting the public and private sectors in addressing social and economic problems in Belfast and across Northern Ireland. The ILCU affiliated credit unions have approximately £840 million held in surplus funds which are not loaned out to their members.  It is suggested that initially up to £100 million of this could be made available for social investment opportunities in Northern Ireland.

Given this unique opportunity, I brought a motion the April meeting of Belfast City Council to investigate if BCC and the credit unions could design a new model or partnership to invest in socially valuable projects.

Recent changes in legislation now allow credit unions to provide new and additional services. In the last week, the Registrar of Credit Unions in Dublin has advised that it will “shortly consult with the sector regarding changes to investment regulations, to accommodate investments in social housing subject to term limits.” Across the globe in the USA, South America, Australia and Poland, credit unions have been working together with other stakeholders including the national and local governments, housing authorities and the third sector to deliver social investment projects which benefit communities.

Belfast City Council, through the Belfast Agenda, has an exciting strategy to grow the City, maximise economic regeneration, increase prosperity and tackle social and economic inequalities. There is a now a unique opportunity to explore an innovative partnership between BCC,  credit unions and others, to allow credit union surplus funds to be used for social investment projects including social and affordable housing.

The credit union movement recognise that from working together with local authorities and bodies such as housing associations, it would enable the movement to put a significant portion of members’ funds to a more productive and economically rewarding purpose, while at the same time, addressing a key social issue that deeply affects the communities which credit unions serve.

This would be a win-win for Belfast City Council, the credit union movement and the local communities we serve.

Tim Attwood is an SDLP Councillor in Belfast