Aston gets its assets in gear

High street banks are making giant profits - and pulling out of Britain 's inner cities. But in Birmingham and elsewhere the people are helping themsel ves, using community banks and credit unions, says Raymond Mgadzah
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Thirty years ago, some of Birmingham's slums were cleared to make way for a shopping precinct and a tower block in the inner-city ward of Aston. Today this building, Newtown Shopping Centre, is itself a slum. "Disgusting," despairs Elsie Sullivan , a 74-year-old pensioner who has lived in the area most of her life. "It was such a lovely place."

Not any more. The briskest trade on the precinct seems to be by suppliers of boards and shutters. These have been used to cover the shopfronts of departing businesses.

There is something else about this shopping centre: no banks. In the past few years, they have cleared out of Aston, saying their branches were uneconomic. So local movers and shakers have decided to set up their own community bank.

"In 1989 we had 24 bank branches and building societies in this area. Now there are only four or five," says Pat Conaty of the Birmingham Settlement, a local voluntary group that has been the catalyst for the community bank plan. "People's only source ofcredit is loan sharks and pawn brokers."

In the precinct, Alan Bradbury stands behind a butcher's shop counter. The butcher's is the only business still operating on this 100-yard stretch of deserted shops. "We've been without a bank for a few years. We had three to start with, but they said there weren't enough customers," Mr Bradbury says.

His assistant nods in agreement, piling slabs of fresh liver on to the scales. "You have to take a bus all the way into the city centre, about one and a half miles away," Mr Bradbury adds. He now deposits his takings at the precinct Post Office.

Other businesses are wary of talking about how they look after their money. But in one of the local pubs, the Lamplighter, Slim Farrell, the landlord's "right-hand man", has no fears. "All the business people round here have the same problem. I have to jump on a bus to go to the city centre three miles away every day, with thousands of pounds on me," he says. "It's a bit risky nowadays, isn't it?"

The banks say there is nothing wrong with this. "Where a branch is uneconomic to run it's closed. Any customer needs to travel only a couple of miles to be able to reach a bank," says Roger Sterba of the British Bankers' Association. Since 1990, 1,500 branches, nearly 10 per cent of the country's total, have been closed.

One result of this policy, unpublished Bank of England figures show, is that nearly a third of Brummies could lose their local banks. "It's disgusting the way they have left it like this," Mr Bradbury says. "There are lots of old people here who can't get on buses."

One is George Barnes, 83. He used to have an account with the TSB, a few minutes' walk away from the estate. Now his nearest branch is half a mile away. "It's hard for me. I have a knee that plays up when I climb the gutter. I have to get a taxi or get someone to go for me."

A neighbour, Chris O'Meara, sometimes goes to the bank for him: "There's a lot of old people who don't trust anybody with their money. You see them trudging up the hill. It's uphill all the way, with heavy lorries, buses, you name it, on the roads." The elderly shun the underpasses for fear of being attacked. And when they arrive at the banks, many face long waits.

Mary, 51 and on invalidity benefit, had a bank account with a Lloyds branch, two minutes walk away. Now she has a long trek. "I have to walk 20 minutes to the nearest bank, three bus stops away," she says. "We had Lloyds, they closed down. Midland, they closed down. They all closed down. We need a community bank round here. We need a community everything."

Slim Farrell agrees: "Everyone would welcome a bank that's local. I'm not particular what kind of bank it is. So long as there is one in the vicinity I will use it."

Pat Conaty sits in cramped upper-floor offices in a local converted house, coffee mug in hand. Exuding steely confidence, he says the community bank plan, the Aston Reinvestment Trust project, is for real.

He seems an unlikely figure for a would-be banker. A mild-mannered American, he has lived in Birmingham for 11 years. In the late Eighties, he made a name for himself in the city running a debt helpline, which plucked many a Brummie out of the wreckage of the consumer credit binge.

The idea for a community bank that would provide credit to local people and businesses goes back to those days. "I got to thinking that the money system must be fundamentally wrong," he says. "We had a meeting with other people interested in ethics and money and formed a group on how to use money in a socially useful way."

When the consumer bubble burst and the banks battened down the hatches, many locals were left without access to bank credit. Some were fleeced by pawnbrokers and loan sharks. At the same time, stung by imprudent lending to crooks and boom-time speculators, the banks began closing branches. Brummies now face a chronic shortage of places to pay water, electricity and gas bills.

"If the banks aren't going to reform, then why not demonstrate a different way of doing things so they can learn from a maverick?" Mr Conaty asks.

One of the first doors Mr Conaty knocked on was that of South Shore Bank, an American development bank. In business for 20 years, it has helped to rejuvenate rundown Chicago neighbourhoods by lending to residents. Many had been denied credit by the main banks. South Shore Bank's top brass were happy to share their wisdom with Mr Conaty. But hopes of a joint venture faltered.

"They ruled it out of court because their experience of managing assets in different currencies, in a banking venture in Poland, had been a costly headache." So Mr Conaty went it alone. It has taken him four years to find potential backers. R Under EU rules, a bank must have capital of at least £4m. One result of the collapse of the Bank of Credit and Commerce International has been a tightening up, by the Bank of England, of supervisory rules. "Just to comply with the regulatory arrangements you may now have to spend a third of staffing costs on people responsible for them," Mr Conaty says. The core of his game plan has been to set up two companies chaired by the businessman Sir Adrian Cadbury. From next April a £200,000 fund th at Conaty has set up will begin making loans to local businesses.

Birmingham City Council, urban regeneration groups and local credit unions have put up some of the money. Mr Conaty reckons that the success of his first projects will persuade his original backers to plough more money into one of the companies so that, by 1996, it will be a £3.5m investment fund. This will earn its financial prudence spurs by lending money to local businesses and housing projects.

The second company is a development fund. This aims to raise up to £1m over the next 18 months. The development fund's job will be to co-ordinate training, support and business advice for local firms.

Mr Conaty and his backers reckon that the success of their core companies will provide a route to a full banking licence. While the creation of the Aston community bank may show the mainstream banks the error of their ways, Mr Conaty is unlikely to crow too loudly. "We don't see this as a bank-bashing exercise. We're simply proving the view that doing business in Aston is uneconomic is wrong."

A request for a business loan from someone who lives in a tower block will not be rejected simply because the applicant has no property to offer as security. An erratic work record need not count against a loan applicant because the fault may lie elsewhere: casual jobs may be all that has ever been open to them.

South Shore Bank's assets have soared from $40m (£26m) to $270m by pursuing similar policies. "The system does not want to lend on the strength of character and commitment, but on the basis of money," Mr Conaty says. "If you have a good business idea butare a black woman in a tower block in Newtown, no bank will lend you money because you don't fit their criteria. Our aim is to lend to people who have good ideas but not a lot of security."

Back in the Lamplighter, Slim Farrell says the sooner Mr Conaty gets the operation up and running, the better. "A community bank would be pretty handy in Newtown. It would be ... what do they call it? An asset . A definite asset."