Lack of finance and credit is one of the biggest challenges facing rural areas in the West Midlands, according to the man appointed to support the region’s countryside businesses.
According to Will Aston, financial exclusion is restricting the way people live and causing unnecessary money worries.
Unveiled as the government’s first rural financial inclusion champion, Mr Aston is responsible for making sure small towns and villages have the same access to essential services as their urban counterparts.
He said: “The government has committed £130million to promote financial inclusion over three years and this will be spent helping bring local authorities, private sector and voluntary organisations together to work more effectively and build on the good work of existing services. To support this approach, a network of financial inclusion champions has been created and our role will be to raise consumer awareness of financial services and to improve access to banking, affordable credit, savings and money advice.
“It is a major challenge, but one we cannot hide from, with existing schemes and initiatives tending to focus on urban areas, despite the fact 300,000 people in rural areas do not have a bank account and only one in eight banks and building societies are present there.”
Mr Aston, previously senior social welfare adviser at the commission for rural communities, said it was important to act now to overcome the problems. The financial inclusion champion will work with local authorities and strategic partners to make sure individuals have the knowledge to make decisions regarding their finances, including being able to manage money, keep track of finances, plan ahead and have access to affordable credit.
This means ensuring products and services are in place, such as basic bank and savings accounts, affordable credit products, simple insurance and free money advice.
Mr Aston said: “These basic requirements are so essential. For example, some people may find it hard to find jobs without a bank account and they may pay more for their utility bills due to a lack of access to discounts available by direct debit.
“Rural people will also pay extremely high rates of interest to borrow from doorstep lenders or other providers of ‘alternative credit’, or worse, face extortion, intimidation and violence at the hands of illegal lenders or ‘loan sharks’.”
The rural financial inclusion champion made his first public appearance when he visited ‘Just Credit Union’ on yesterday for a guided tour of the head office in Shropshire to find out how one of the UK’s first county-wide credit unions uses technology and volunteers to deliver an easy to use savings and borrowing service.