A one-man project at Swindon Borough Council has managed to help residents save thousands of pounds and get access to thousands more in benefits.

Andrew Hill, the authority’s social and inclusion and enterprise manager, was praised by the council’s deputy leader Russell Holland for his “phenomenal hard work” and “powers of persuasion” in working with other organisations to help those in need.

With no team and no budget, what does Andrew do, and why and how?

In his office in Regent Circus Andrew, who came to the council in 2016 from the Trussell Trust, having been a project manager for the organisation which runs foodbanks across the country, said: "One of my major objectives is to try and improve the financial resilience of residents.

“That means I want to help them get into a position where sudden expenses or a change doesn’t put them in trouble.”

One of his main successes has been work with the Wiltshire and Swindon Credit Union.

“That was formed from a merger of the Wiltshire Savings and Loans and Steam Ahead Credit Union, which was too small to survive.

"We managed to persuade it to put Swindon in the name.

“The point of a credit union is that it’s a building society – but it’s small and closer to the members.

"You can save in small amounts but you can borrow in small amounts.

"Banks and building societies want to lend larger amounts over longer periods of time, If you need £300 now because your fridge has broken down, they’re not very interested.”

That, Andrew explained helped fuel the rise of ‘payday lending companies’.

But their rates can be extremely high: “The rates of interest were capped by the government so that they can’t charge more than twice the original loan, but all that means is that they now want the money back in a shorter time.

"If you borrow £300, you’ll have to pay back £600 over three months, not two years.

"That just adds more financial pressure. If you needed a load for £300 in the first place, you’re not that likely to be able to find £600 quickly.”

Andrew has set up a “save-as-you-earn” system with the Wiltshire and Swindon credit union for employees of Swindon Borough Council, where a small amount of money is automatically deposited with the union from members’ salaries.

He said: “The council has a relatively high proportion of staff on lower salaries – and it’s those workers who are most vulnerable to financial difficulties, needing loans.

“We want to be able to get it up and running and then show that it works to other organisations and companies.”

With local authority budgets having been slashed over the past decade, it might be a surprise that Andrew’s post was set up in the first place, particularly by Coun Holland, who is responsible for the council’s purse strings.

Andrew said: “There’s only me, I don’t have a team.

"But we’re trying to save the council money.

“If we can help somebody 18 to 20 months before they’re in trouble, before they feel the need to go to see Citizen's Advice for debt advice then that saves everybody time and money.

“Financial difficulties and worries can have a negative impact on mental health. It can lead to family breakdown, it can make people homeless.

"The council and the charity sector are trying to pick up the pieces in those circumstances, but it’s expensive.

"If we can help someone be more financially resilient before they get to that state, that’s worth doing.”

Details of help and advice and where to turn to either avoid falling into money worries, or when you are in difficulties are available on the borough council’s website at swindon.gov.uk/info/20013/benefits_and_support

Credit where credit's due

Every Tuesday George Hubert and his colleague Bill Gulliver pull up a table in the main room of the John Moulton Hall in Penhill and start running, in effect, a bank.

They are volunteer collection agents for the Wiltshire and Swindon Credit Union, and it’s clear how friendly and small-scale and unintimidating it is.

There’s a cashbox and a ledger book, with entries handwritten in pen – it’s a far cry from the officiousness of a bank or building society, and people at the centre say hello and pull up a chair for a chat.

George, 66, said: “We come here on Tuesday for the free cafe, when plenty of people come along, so if they want to join or make a deposit it’s convenient and easy for them.”

The union has thousands of members across the borough and Wiltshire, with about 25 to 30 regularly saving though the Penhill collection point.

George said: “I think people like it that we are here every week and they get to know us, and we’re a small organisation and they can save small amounts and also take out a small loan which a bigger bank wouldn’t be willing to lend them

“They can have that money in case of an emergency or some people save a little bit every week which they use for Christmas.”

There are three other collection points across the borough, in libraries, halls and churches at Parks, Toothill and Highworth.

For more information on the credit union, and to find details of specific times and locations of collection points visit the union’s website wascu.co.uk

How the scheme has helped so far

Councillor Russell Holland, who set up the one-man financial inclusion team is proud of the work Andrew Hill is doing, and also to the volunteers at the credit union and Citizen’s Advice Bureau.

He said: “As a local authority it’s important that we do as much as we can to help those who need it.

“It’s just the right thing to do. Swindon is a great town with great people and we have had a lot of help from a lot of people on this.

“We’re providing leadership where we can, but there’s still a lot more to do in this area. I’m extremely grateful for all the help we’ve had from volunteers and other people across Swindon who have done so much to help us.”

As well as working with the credit union, Andrew Hill helped get funding from DWP for two ‘money mentors’ based at at Citizen’s Advice Bureau.

Nearly 200 people have been helped by the mentors, with £302,000 saved in their personal spending and £287,000 additional benefits being identified.