It’s pelting down and everyone who comes into the front office this morning looks like a drowned rat.
Today is money day again at the UCAN. The place is only open for those who want to see the local credit union, Hoot, or have an appointment with Dawn from Money Skills. Oh, and Jade is upstairs waiting to see her ‘Think Positive’ clients.
Hoot’s first customer is early. Nick has come to make his regular loan re-payment and, as Steve from Hoot has yet to set up his stall in the corner of the front office, I grab my opportunity. “Can I have a chat… about why you use the credit union?”
“You can ask me what you like,” says Nick, happy to help. “I could tell you my life story if you’ve got time.”
I suggest there might not be enough tape in my recorder and instead ask him how long he’s been with Hoot. “Three years. And I’ve had a new loan off them each year. Every fortnight I pay off some of the loan and put something into a savings account. They use people’s savings to give out other loans.”
Nick explains that he uses Hoot as a way of budgeting across the year. The loan he takes out each October pays for Christmas and it takes him 12 months to pay it back, then he takes out another.
“What is your income, are you on benefits?”
“I get child benefits, family tax credits and employment support allowance, and that’s because I’m under the Mental Health Act, I’ve been under them for 20 odd years.”
“They’ll only give you what they think you can afford to pay back. Before they start they work out what money you’ve got coming in and what your bills are and that.
“If this wasn’t around where could you go?”
“The only other thing is a budgeting loan from the Department of Health and Social Security, [now the DWP].”
“And what about loan sharks? Have you had any experience of loan sharks?”
“I’ve used three or four of them in the past. But, If you borrow £100 they’ll be asking for £250 back,” he says. “They always want more from you. That’s what they do on this estate, they prey on people on ‘social’. They’ll go to the door and say you can have a £200 cash loan and there won’t be many – especially at this time of year – who won’t take it.”
“What if you don’t pay it back?”
“The official ones – the likes of Shopacheck and that – they’ll just send someone round from head office but there are others that’ll send the heavies round… give you a few slaps. You know what I mean?”
Steve is ready now.
Nick has his card, and his payments, and all the receipt slips from his fortnightly visits in a plastic folder. “I always keep it organised,” he says. “So here’s £30, that’s £28 off the loan and £2 going into the savings, right?”
“Okay,” says Steve, filling out another receipt form.
“And here’s what they do,” says Nick, “showing me a kind of income and expenditure analysis that he’s had to complete before getting his loan. “They won’t give you the money unless they know you can pay it back.”
“Is he your best customer, Steve?” I joke.
“He’s a good customer.”
“And I get a pen every time I come in!” laughs Nick, picking up one of the Hoot pens off the desk.
“He pinches one every time he comes in!” laughs Steve with him.
There’s talk in the kitchen about a football game tomorrow. Carl has been encouraging local men to come down to a weekly lunchtime kick-about organised by Bolton at Home and Bolton Wanderers.
“You could come too,” he says as he gives me a leaflet. I’m not sure whether he means to play or to watch. Hopefully it’s to watch.
“I will,” I say, “maybe not tomorrow but I’ll come down some time and take some pictures.”
Dawn from Money Skills is in the small office next to the kitchen. Her first client has just texted to say she’ll be late – her son has been sent home from school. “Can I ask you a few questions while you are waiting?” I ask.
Dawn agrees and starts by explaining that Money Skills is a confidential, impartial money advice service to help people on low incomes with budgeting, banking and saving, and even energy efficiency.
“So why are you here, at the Breightmet UCAN?” It sounds a bit rude but thankfully Dawn understands what I’m getting at.
“We have offices in town but, of course, we realise that those with money issues can’t always afford the bus fares. We position ourselves in the community so people can access us easily.”
Dawn has been giving Bolton residents money advice for the last seven years. “But now there is more demand than ever,” she says, “and it’s getting tougher. In the past there were always things we could do to help customers. Now, with the welfare reforms, there are going to be some customers that will still struggle no matter how much we maximise their income and minimise their expenditure. There just isn’t enough money coming into the household to support them.”
“What’s changed in particular?” I ask.
“The bedroom tax is proving very difficult. If you’re a single person or you’re on Jobseeker’s Allowance then there’s not much slack. Finding another 11% of your rent [for one extra bedroom] can be quite substantial for someone who’s only receiving £71 a week.”
“The government would say that Universal Credit will make things more straightforward,” I suggest. “Will it make it easier for people to manage their money?”
“Despite all the publicity a lot of people just aren’t aware of it,” says Dawn. “They will only get their money once a month and they might not have anticipated that. And it will be paid in arrears so there will be a period when there will be no money coming in until the payment reaches them.”
“So, when it’s introduced, do you mean there will be a gap in people’s payments?”
“Depending on their payment date, yes. We are trying to warn people about that. They really need to be thinking about that now and maybe put, say a pound a week away, so they have some money built up for when it does affect them. There’s a lot to think about.”
I’m intrigued by Dawn’s work. She’s right at the sharp end of the reforms, trying to help those at crisis point. “If you see someone who is obviously not coping, what do you do? What can you do?”
“We have to gather all the facts: find out where they live, whether or not the rent is being paid, what benefits they are claiming. We are seeing quite a few clients now who have had their benefits stopped – they’ve been sanctioned by the JobCentre for some reason – and are on nil income. We need to find out why and try to resolve that quickly.”
Dawn says she tries to put things on hold for those clients. She’ll talk to their landlord – often Bolton at Home – and their utility companies and ask for breathing space, time to get things sorted.
“If clients have no money for food, which is usually the case, we have links with all the food banks around here. We can give them vouchers whilst we are trying to get their finances sorted.”
“Have you seen more food banks set up since you started?”
“Oh gosh. There were no food banks when I started. Now there are lots, and they’re all in high demand. We do have some emergency food parcels back at the office because the local food bank is only open once a week. So we might have to organise for an emergency parcel to be delivered until they can go to the food bank.”
There’s a gentle knock on the open door. I make way for Dawn’s first client of the day.
It’s raining again. I swear I’ve only seen Breightmet once in the sunshine since I’ve been embedded in this UCAN two months ago.
I might only be here one day a week but I’m definitely getting the feel for what they are about. There’s half a page of bullet points in my notebook and, before she gets sidetracked with someone else, I ask Vanessa if I can confirm my observations with her. We sit upstairs in her office.
“There’s a lot of ‘drawing people in’, isn’t there? You know, offering things that just get people through the door, like the knitting and the football?”
“… and the IT. They are what we call our engagement tools,” says Vanessa. “We don’t force things down people’s throats. It’s not a compulsory service, people can come in and ask for whatever they need and we will try to help. That leads to conversations and, because we’re right here, we have the space and time to build relationships and trust.”
“Sorry. Why is the IT an engagement tool?”
“At most community venues you have to book a slot on the computers and use them for a specific purpose. Here, we wouldn’t have a problem with customers initially coming in just to use Facebook for example.”
“Just to get them through the door… so you can start those conversations?”
“Exactly. We are the hook.”
“And then, once you get to know them, you find out what issues they have and direct them to different services. It’s sounds simple.”
Vanessa laughs. A sort of it-might-sound-simple-but-it’s-really-quite-challenging kind of laugh.
“And because you’re not a compulsory service,” I continue, “it means you can be very fluid, very adaptable to what people need.”
I’m hitting the nail on the head. Vanessa talks about the flexibility they have with the limited space available. They can invite different services – like the credit union or the employment support advisors – to deliver their services from the UCAN, and the symbiotic relationship ticks boxes for them all.
“So, if the UCAN is so great, why is it not replicated around the country?” I ask.
“That is such a good question, such a fantastic question,” – I try my hardest not to beam – “I think it’s because it’s just too simple.”
“Some organisations have these multi-million pound showbiz buildings with ‘meeters and greeters’ behind reception desks – all very posh and clinical – which are about giving the customer a sophisticated experience of a venue rather than offering them what they need. I’m not saying we’re not sophisticated because the UCAN model is very sophisticated but it’s also very simple.”
“Do you think some organisations can’t see the wood for the trees?”
“Some have become very compartmentalised. You have to go to that enquiry desk to do one thing; ring that person to do another or go online to do a third. Some think it’s easier – more cost effective even – to manage customers from a distance. Everyone has a specific role to play, it’s almost like a department store model.
“Here we are the constant hook, we can help people ourselves or refer them to services inside or outside of the UCAN. You really need to see this place to understand how it works in practice. And we have to remember that despite all the new technology there are still a lot of customers out there that need a specific level of meaningful support that can only come from personal, human contact.”
Vanessa is off on one now. And quite rightly. She’s evangelical about the support the UCAN provides and sees it as a model that can work elsewhere. As well as everything else, she’ll be giving guided tours soon.
“By having those conversations we’re empowering customers to – at some point – take control of their own solutions by giving them options in a very informal, non-judgmental way.”
Dave’s come early so we can talk.
He runs the Discovery Group, a weekly support session for substance misusers – recovering alcoholics and drug addicts – and he’s well qualified. “I’ve drunk heavily all my adult life and for 25 years I was dependent on alcohol,” he says, candidly. “I know the pain – I can’t over-emphasise that – and I know the mental processes an addict has to put in place to change the way they think.”
I ask Dave about the circumstances that led him to become an alcoholic. “By 16,” he says, “I had a reputation that was built around being able to drink more than anyone else and I embraced that quite happily.”
He tells me his father was in the trade and drink was readily available, part of everyday life. Yes there were family problems: his parents split and reunited, twice. Dave’s first marriage, to his childhood sweetheart, failed after seven years and his second after 13 years, “There were other issues in both relationships, but fundamentally you can put it down to alcohol,” he says.
Now retired, he’s still amazed he managed to hold down a job throughout a lifetime of drink. “I would have sacked me, I really would. I wouldn’t have tolerated it.”
Dave’s group grew out of an NHS initiative that was axed due to the cuts. He could see the benefit it was providing to, he concedes, a relatively small number of addicts and he wanted to keep it going as a volunteer.
“It had become part of the routine,” he says, “and routine is vital to recovery. The UCAN offered this room for free and have never asked us for any payment, even for teas and coffees.”
“And why is this different from other groups like NA [Narcotics Anonymous] or AA [Alcoholics Anonymous]?”
“People have to try whatever’s out there. Some support suits some people and not others. Alcoholics Anonymous wasn’t right for me…”
“Why not?” I interrupt.
Dave pauses. “They were asking too much of me,” he says eventually. “Not of anyone else… of me.”
I leave it there. “So do you follow a particular programme with your course?”
“Yes. I’ve written a 12-week programme pulled together from different sources and so one week we might cover self harm, the next we could be discussing putting in place a recovery network of people who can help.”
“And, as a volunteer Dave, you must get something out of this as well? It’s got to be a two-way thing, right?”
“There is no doubt that doing this is good for me. I’d be a liar if I said any different. I’m someone who knows and cares, and yes, there’s a feel-good factor to it.
“I am so proud of being well thought of by all of them here at this UCAN. It’s probably one of the things I’m most proud of. I see them going the extra mile every day. I’ve got a great respect for them and they respect and value what I do too.”
Dave’s attendees have arrived downstairs for the start of this week’s two hour session. “I’ll just grab something to eat and then, if it’s okay, I’ll pop in to be a fly on the wall.”
Later I take my camera and recorder into the meeting. Dave is here with Alan, a friendly man I’ve met at the UCAN a few times before and another man I’ll call George. It’s a smaller turnout than usual but that’s the nature of this client group.
They’re talking about children. Forty-year-old George says he’s been having regrets about not starting a family.
“I never had kids,” says Dave, “and I put that down to the drink. Alcohol affects every part of your body. But I don’t regret it. It’s best not to regret. You can spend a lot of time regretting…”
At the UCAN Carl has already changed into his shorts and is pretty much ready to head off to the weekly football session.
We walk together through the estate, my tape recorder held up to his face.
“We want to start looking at men’s health,” he says as I ask him about the sessions, “and it’s not just physical exercise, although that’s important, but we’d like to encourage men to talk about all their health issues. Some of these lads you’ll meet today might be unemployed or have debt issues. So, at first, it’s just an engagement tool really.”
There it is again. Engagement tool. Hitting customers over the head with a debt counselling session or a four-day self-esteem workshop might not be the easiest first step to foster a meaningful long-term relationship, but getting stuck in with a friendly slide tackle could just do the trick.
“Hopefully in the New Year we can start looking at spin-offs,” Carl says. “Maybe DIY courses if that’s something they would like to do.” And there it is again: there’s no 12-month programme already planned out. Everything the UCAN does is tailored to the customers, it’s about doing what they want to do, when they want to do it.
“No, I don’t see that many young men using the UCAN,” I say, “although I’ve seen plenty around the estate.”
“That’s it really,” says Carl, “it’s getting young men to engage with services. They don’t always speak openly about things. But I have noticed, since we’ve been doing the football, that more have been coming into the UCAN.”
“Just to use the computer. They feel comfortable enough to come in and use the computer and that’s a big step.”
We are walking past Bolton St Catherine’s Academy, a new school with views across the town it serves. “This is a magnificent facility,” says Carl. “They do lots of community activities here. When we were looking for a venue for the football they said we could use one of their pitches. And it’s top of the range. It’s 4G.”
“What’s 4G?” I ask, “it sounds like broadband!”
“It’s a bit longer than normal astra turf,” says Carl.
A bus is stopping. A young man with large headphones gets off, his head down.
“You okay?” says Carl, waving a hand towards him. “You coming over? To the footie?”
One side of the headphones is pulled down. “Might do.”
“Yeah. Come over. Starts at one,” Carl says. And then to me: “Some of the lads have been promoting it for us. We’ve had 10 young men off the estate playing football and that’s brilliant after only three weeks.”
Twenty minutes later, and after a sharp downpour, half a dozen local young men and a handful of staff from both Bolton at Home and Bolton Wanderers are running up and down the 4G, imagining they are at the Reebok or the Camp Nou.
Vanessa pops along to support and gets chatting to the only other spectator, a girlfriend of one of the lads. Within minutes she has encouraged the young woman to pop into the UCAN, have a chat about setting up a woman’s football team and get some advice on returning to college.
One person at a time.