Wales is a country of strong political and cultural heritage. It has diverse, discreet communities, some of which exist today despite having lost the industries on which they were based. As a nation with two official languages, it has both English-
and Welsh-speaking communities. The rural / valleys / urban make-up of Wales offers practical and logistical opportunities and challenges for credit unions and we can see some of this reflected in the locations, size and membership in Wales.
1980, the first credit union was registered in Wales. The St Therese's Credit Union served the Catholic community living on a housing estate in Port Talbot. In the 1990s membership of credit unions in Wales grew as credit unions helped to deliver anti-poverty
and Financial Inclusion policies in cooperation with local authorities and national charities. By 1997, 31 credit unions were registered in Wales. Following mergers between smaller credit unions the number of registered credit unions in Wales reduced
to 26 by 2010. Between them the 26 credit unions achieve all-Wales coverage
Many of the issues now facing Welsh credit unions are echoed in the experiences of credit unions in different places, at different times, and at different stages of country-level
and organisational development. Some of these issues include government policy and intervention; growth and efficiency, including mergers and acquisitions, sustainability, and professionalisation; good corporate governance and management; roles in relation
to social deprivation and financial inclusion ; and identity. Many credit unions in Wales have sought models and ideas from credit unions at home and abroad: most notably Ireland and North America.
Credit unions in Wales have played a significant role
in reaching under-served and excluded communities. They have been a particular safety net for many in rural communities who have increasingly restricted access to affordable financial services. However, many Welsh credit unions, as well as others throughout
Britain, have recognised that if they are going to effectively serve low-income and financially excluded communities, they first have to succeed as viable co-operative businesses. The social and economic roles of credit unions can be seen at the heart of recent
history in Britain, where many credit unions initially developed according to a particular model in response to poverty and disadvantages experienced in many communities throughout Britain. In many ways, this model emphasised the social objectives of credit
unions, to the exclusion of the economic objectives required for long term sustainable development. Instead of fostering the growth of a volunteer-led, professional co-operative financial service, able to meet the financial needs of large numbers of people,
this model helped promote the image of credit unions as‘marginal’ and ‘poor people’s banks’ and may have contributed to the restricted growth of credit unions, even within the low income communities to whose needs the credit unions
had aimed to respond. These tensions are pertinent to the development of the credit union movement in Wales, as they highlight the need for balance between financial and social goals and interests.
New figures released by the Bank of England have shown
the dramatic growth of the credit union movement in Wales over the last ten years.
The statistics reveal that credit union membership in Wales doubled in the decade to September 2014. Nearly 72,000 people now have a credit union account – up from
just 34,000 in 2004. The average annual rate of membership growth over the last three years has also been greater in Wales than in any other part of the United Kingdom.