A MAJOR initiative to combat ruthless loan sharks has been officially launched by Middlesbrough Mayors old and new.
Current elected Mayor Andy Preston formally opened the town's new Community Bank this week (Tuesday, August 6).
The bank opened its doors earlier this year, offering support to those in financial hardship who may otherwise be turned away from the major high street names.
The initiative was kick-started by former Mayor Dave Budd, who was among the guests at Tuesday's launch event.
Run by Moneywise Credit Union, the Community Bank offers all the products of a regular high street bank, including current accounts, online banking and loans.
The initiative - with a parallel branch in Redcar - was made possible with grant funding of £465,000 from the SSI Task Force, and a further £50,000 from Middlesbrough Council.
Since opening, the Community Bank has opened more than 230 new accounts, and approved more than 60 loans.
Accounts have been opened for some of those moved onto Universal Credit, who had been relying on food banks and fuel voucher top-ups.
Other success stories include an account for a homeless man who had been unable to claim benefits - with support from the Salvation Army he has been able to make a claim and is moving forward with his housing situation.
Strong partnership links have been forged with service providers across Middlesbrough, ensuring members have access to the best advice and support, and breaking down barriers which had previously seemed insurmountable.
Moneywise CEO Symon Agnew said: "The Community Bank is delivering real alternatives to high-cost lenders and support for those who cannot access High Street banks.
"But it's not just for the financially excluded - we are open to all members of the community as an ethical source of lending."
Middlesbrough Mayor Andy Preston said: "Sadly there are those who will prey on the most deprived and vulnerable in our communities, leaving them locked in a vicious spiral of debt and intimidation.
"The Community Bank is a vital local tool to help us break that cycle, and protect people from unscrupulous high-interest lenders and loan sharks.
"It has already made great strides, and this week's launch is a celebration of the great work that has already been done, and a call to others to get involved in a truly worthwhile project."
Mr Budd added: "It's great the Community Bank is up and running and working so well, and I'm sure it has a great future.
"It's really important that we give people a realistic and credible alternative to illegal and high-interest money lenders.
"That's exactly what the Community Bank is - it looks and feels like a bank, because it is a bank, and it's on the high street where people expect it to be."
For more information, and to sign up for the South Tees Community Bank, visit https://www.southteescommunitybank.org.uk/