Page last updated at 06:06 GMT, Friday, 14 May 2010 07:06 UK

Interest grows into Welsh banking's 'best kept secret'

Noel Titheradge
BBC Wales news

Iris Williams
Iris Williams returns to the project she helped launch more than 20 years ago

Throughout her music career and charity work, singer Iris Williams has never forgotten her ties to the Welsh community she grew up in.

Raised in a south Wales children's home, Ms Williams has long promoted the work of community credit unions.

Now she will perform a concert to raise money for the Rhydyfelin credit union on Friday 14 May - more than 20 years after she opened it.

Credit unions are co-operatives that provide savings accounts and loans.

They are owned and controlled by their members and aim to provide support for underprivileged people unable to secure loans from mainstream banks.

Use of credit unions in Wales has increased during the economic downturn, according to Denis Greenall of Dragon Savers Credit Union, the umbrella organisation that runs Rhydyfelin credit union.

You have young women prostituting themselves because they can't repay money at an extortionate rate
Denis Greenall

He said: "Our offices are directly opposite a High Street bank and when the wheels started to come off, we could see people were walking into the bank over the road taking the money out and bringing it into the credit union office."

Mr Greenall said credit unions were more conscientious providers of money, and as a result they have been strongly supported by the Welsh Assembly Government.

He said: "Credit unions are more responsible lenders. The assembly government are quite aware of illegal loan sharks.

"You have young women prostituting themselves because they can't repay money at an extortionate rate.

"We're safe and don't let people get overdrawn."

People's bank

Credit union membership in Wales grew from 11,000 in 2000 to over 43,000 in 2007 and there are now 29 Welsh credit unions, according to the Welsh Assembly Government.

However, some, such as Christina Stoneman, general manager of Dragon Savers Credit Union, believe their benefits are still not widely known.

She said: "We feel we're the best kept secret in banking.

"In the past we've been seen as a poor man's bank, but now I think we're being seen as a people's bank.

"It's very empowering being a member of a credit union. If you don't like something, you come and tell us or you can be elected to join the board.

"People come to us saying they've had enough of the banks now, they're looking for alternatives."

According to the Association of British Credit Unions, a culture of easy credit is responsible for escalating debt repayments.

A spokesperson said: "I think people have been encouraged to borrow above what they can afford and for things that were not essential.

"Credit unions are trying to get people to manage their money.

"They have a fundamental education role as well as providing money."

The concert will be held at the Hawthorn Leisure Centre in Pontypridd and begin at 1930 BST.

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