The West Leeds Debt Forum was started in 2004, at the initiative of Church Army Captain Peter Green, who called together, round his kitchen table, a small group of concerned individuals and organisations, to look at how local issues of debt and the dangers of loan sharks could be tackled. Debt is a major cause of stress, poor physical and mental health, self-harm and suicide, family break-up, domestic violence. The Forum was concerned about these effects on the well being of the people of West Leeds and also concerned about the threats to people who fell into the clutches of loan sharks. The three basic aims of the Forum were – and remain:
· the promotion of debt advisory services;
· alerting people to the dangers of loan sharks and encouraging local action;
· promotion of savings and affordable credit sources, such as the credit unions.
The organisations represented at this first meeting were: Bramley Parish, Church Action on Poverty, Leeds Credit Union, St Vincent’s Advice Centre and Sure Start. Advice on how to set up the Forum was provided by Diocesan Urban Officer Kathryn FitzSimons, who served as chair for several years.
At the beginning, the institutional base of the Forum was the local Sure Start programme, which provided premises for its regular 6-weekly meetings. Sure Start also obtained the first grant (£750) from our local MP to run annual open meetings. As the Forum developed and numbers attending meetings increased, larger premises were needed and Bramley Parish offered one of its church halls free of charge. This was an extremely important factor in enabling the Forum to continue.
The Forum was from the start intended to be a networking group rather than an operational/project-delivering group, though the Forum members are operational. Members of the Forum include not only the Credit Unions, but a mix of organisations from the voluntary and public sectors: Advisory organisations, such as Burley Lodge and Citizen’s Advice; the NHS Neighbourhood Team; WNW Homes; Leeds Federated Housing Association; Trading Standards, Armley One-Stop.
Through the Forum and in partnership with the Illegal Money Lending Team and Trading Standards, local organisations came together to hold local ‘Break the chain of debt’ community events in late 2010 and early 2011 to highlight these issues. Local Leeds Rhinos Rugby League star Jamie Jones-Buchanan, local MP Rachel Reeves, children from local schools, local residents and community police joined in these events, which were held in Bramley, Armley and New Wortley. The leading organisations involved (NHS Neighbourhood Team, WNW Homes, Leeds Credit Union) contributed resources and worked in total collaboration – a real testimony of how integrated community development can be achieved.
The West Leeds Debt Forum is following up on these events and is working with the Illegal Money Lending Project in the implementation of a campaign, involving a range of local organisations and groups, to Stop Loan Sharks and promote local sources of affordable credit and advice. The campaign started in September, aiming for blanket coverage of West Leeds, and will continue to the end of March 2013. The Forum has raised funds for the campaign through grants from Area Well Being and from Community First.
In recognition of its work, the Forum was invited in early 2012 to attend a small national meeting in the Houses of Parliament, attended by Rachel Reeves MP, and in August the Forum was given the Illegal Money Lending Project’s Stop Loan Sharks Champions Regional Award (Yorkshire and Humberside) for 2012. The judges for this Award cited the voluntary nature of the Forum organisation.
The West Leeds Debt Forum is run by volunteers – no paid staff, though of course representatives of local organisations are employees. A volunteer does the networking (emailing, chairs meetings, does the writing up of meetings, preparation and circulation of annual reports, press releases, radio interviews). Bramley Parish provides the venue. Refreshments are provided on a ‘charitable giving’ basis. In 2012, the Forum held its eighth Annual Open meeting, which was attended by representatives from 18 organisations as well as by local residents. The first three of these meetings were funded by a grant from our local MP. The subsequent meetings were funded by MICE money via our local councillors. This is the only funding the Forum uses (approx £300/year).
What have been key enabling factors?
· Initial links to organisations involved in activities relevant to the Forum: provided initially through Sure Start and Church Action on Poverty rep. Subsequently members have joined by recommendation!
· Support of local elected representatives: both the previous and the current MPs were/are strong supporters of the Forum, attending the annual open meetings; local councillors have been strong supporters, in providing the funds for and in attending the annual meeting;
· Committed key local organisations who will work for the common good and not primarily for their own organisation’s credit: in our case, the lead organisations have been NHS Neighbourhood Team, WNW Homes, Leeds Citywide Credit Union, Burley Lodge Advice centre;
· An institutional base offering free use of premises: originally Sure Start, then Bramley Parish;
· Availability of volunteers.
The work of the West Leeds Debt Forum is now being replicated in East Leeds and the two Forums are joining forces and, in partnership with the Illegal Money Lending Team, are holding an Annual Open Meeting at The Carriageworks, Millenium Square, on Thursday 21st March at 2pm. The meeting will open with a drama on the dangers of loan sharks. This will be followed by a panel discussion on issues around debt, the need for investment in debt advice, initiatives at local level for poverty disruption.
PLEASE ADVERTISE THIS EVENT – IT WILL BE ADDRESSING KEY ISSUES IN WHICH THE CHURCH HAS BEEN – AND MUST CONTINUE TO BE – INVOLVED. AND IT IS FREE!!!!