View from Church Tower


Posted by in July's Magazine

From the viewpoint on top of the tower of South Leith Parish Church you get an amazing view of Leith, Edinburgh, the Firth of Forth and Fife. At times seeing the expanse and diversity set out before you it can blinker you into what lies right beneath you. The church sits in the centre of Leith, adjacent to the Kirkgate. Within a few hundred yards of the tower people are struggling socially and financially. In Leith almost 6,000 people are living in relative poverty and may feel they have very few options or choices when it comes to borrowing money.

Within that few hundred yards from the church tower there are six or seven retail outlets offering pawnbroker/payday lender loans as well as cash a cheque shops, soft and electrical goods for sale at a high cost. They would not be there if they were not used and made money. Many in our community may think these outlets are their only option if they need to borrow money. This is not a good situation not only for those who use these shops but for us all as we think how we can change this and give those who are being exploited financially, a better more affordable choice.

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In May this year a new option appeared on Great Junction Street when the Hollywood actor, Michael Sheen, officially opened Castle Community Bank. Michael has been a great advocate, in his own community of Port Talbot in South Wales, of trying to address the inequality when it comes to offering an alternative to those in his community who are being financially exploited. He praised the opening of the community bank and encouraged all in Leith to use the services offered to make a difference here in Leith.

It is a sad reflection on our society that one of the growth areas in recent years has been the expansion of high cost lending companies. Some online lenders charge up to 2000% for a loan of say £500, which would mean you would repay approximately £190 per month in interest if you did not pay the loan off within a few weeks.

What can be done to rid the exploitation of those in our community who are most exposed to exploitative loan products? Well, the government could be more proactive and not just leave things to market forces. In the USA, seen as the home of free markets, their moral and ethical standards led to the introduction of Usury Laws to stop the financial exploitation of their citizens. In many US states there are caps on interest rates that ensure all citizens, have access to affordable finance.

Payday lenders have been driven out of many states and migrated to the UK, hence the rise over the last decade of such companies here. Why can’t we follow their example? An affordable cap on interest rates would be a big step forward; even a 50% maximum rate per annum would be a start. But is there the will?

The choices for those who are living with low wages and few financial resources can be stark. It is a shocking to realise that a recent report into poverty in Scotland highlighted the fact that one in four of the children in our country, in the 21st century, is living in poverty.

The financial pressure on families at the lower end of the revenue spectrum can be immense. Those who are in the lower income bracket tend to have to pay more for many of the basics in life, such as electricity, gas and, worst of all, credit.

Access to affordable credit is a major issue for many in our society. Too many are financially exploited by large financial corporations and are charged usury interest rates to gain access to credit. And we are talking about credit that is required to buy basic household goods or just to make ends meet!

If we helped those at the lower end of the financial ladder it would obviously ease the strain on their finances and see those much-needed extra pounds in their pockets rather than the creditor’s. In turn, it would help them get out of the poverty trap and break the ‘cycle of dependence’ on high cost lenders. Community Banks, Credit Unions and CDFI all do their bit to help here but we do need the Government and Financial Regulators to do their bit as well. They need to put in place the structures, laws and regulations that will help the most vulnerable in our society get the fair and just access that all in in society are entitled to.

Info:Reverend Iain May is the founder of Castle Community Bank and Minister of South Leith Parish Church. For more on this go to: www.communitybanknetwork.co.uk/scotland

Pic Credit: Church of Scotland media dept

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