Rainbow credit unionCo-operative activist Sally Chicken describes the expansion of her local credit union and how legislation has helped make this happen.

Rainbow Saver Anglia Credit Union Ltd opened its second shop in April 2013. It has been trading for over 10 years with 4,500 members in Suffolk, Cambridgeshire and South Norfolk. Last year it processed more than £2.6 million last year.

So what was different about opening our shop in Peterborough in 2013 compared with our shop in Lowestoft more than 7 years ago?

Firstly, we benefited from the changing legislation and what Ed Mayo has called “visibility of co-operatives.” In Lowestoft, we couldn’t get bins collected or rent a photocopier without personal guarantees from Directors; roll forward to 2013 and the credit union registration is now visible to credit checks which enabled us to set up contracts with photocopier rental and bin collections. This has been achieved by substantial work and changes in legislation to make co-operative businesses more mainstream instead of hidden in a co-operative bunker! It illustrated for me that practical advantages come from behind the scenes work that lacks appreciation within the co-op movement.

The Co-operative and Community Benefit Societies and Credit Unions Act 2010 doesn’t exactly trip off the tongue, nor did it get much attention when hard work got it passed, but we are seeing it bring us benefits. The Co-operative Party and Co-operatives UK are continuing to work hard to ensure the legislative environment continues to build support for co-operatives. The CBI understands the importance of this kind of structural work to keep the Companies Act up to date, so it is vital that we have the Co-operative Party to help us keep pace.

Secondly was the faster acceptance of the credit union, with people opening an account due to difficulty or dislike of banks. It’s noticeable in Peterborough that a third of the new members want the prepaid debit card we offer because they have been refused a bank debit card. Even the Co-op Bank has withdrawn from new basic bank accounts so clearly there is a new opportunity for credit unions. The general lack of awareness of credit unions has been countered by the evidence that we exist as a corporate body, the acceptance of credit unions as acceptable payment processors and the new awareness of co-operatives, when we tell people that a credit union is a co-operative it no longer gets so many blank looks.

Maybe that’s because Peterborough is the home of the independent local Anglia Regional Co-op, but it is also interesting to note that people are giving us examples of other co-operatives that they are aware of both in the UK and internationally. The improved visibility from the Year of the Co-operative perhaps.

Sally Chicken is a Director of the East of England Co-operative and has been involved with Credit Unions for over 20 years.