Murdo MacLeod
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The banker who found God

How a Scottish minister took on the payday lenders.

 

Nearly a decade after Iain May left banking, the minister of South Leith Parish Church decided that it was time to put his financial know-how to good use.

It’s easy to imagine May, broad-shouldered, welcoming and sociable, in more corporate surroundings. But in his blue shirt and white minister’s collar, he seems perfectly at home in the church halls of this port area in north-eastern Edinburgh, which host everything from food banks and breakfasts for the homeless to Scottish country dancing and rehearsals of a seniors’ choir.

A few yards away, the local streets still offer visible evidence of the effects of the 2008 financial crisis and the austerity that followed. “About six months after I started in the parish . . . I was walking through the local shopping area and counted nine payday lenders or cash convertors within literally a couple of hundred yards,” May tells me.

His colleague at the nearby Roman Catholic church had noticed the same thing. The conversations that followed resulted in May leading a very different kind of financial enterprise from those with which he had spent most of his career. This time, he was seeking to help tidy up the mess created by the sector that once employed him.

May established himself at Royal Bank of Scotland after entering banking at American Express. Before working in finance, he had spent time in the merchant navy. He joined RBS as a marketing manager for its credit-card business in the early 1990s, just as the bank embarked on its transformation from a venerable Edinburgh institution into a leading global player. He was involved in a programme called Project Columbus, which was part of the target-obsessed sales culture that contributed to the bank’s downfall.

After leaving RBS, May moved to Dublin to work for Allied Irish Banks (AIB), which, like RBS, was later bailed out after the bursting of the credit bubble it had helped to inflate. But by this time, May had begun to turn his back on the industry.

“By the mid-Noughties, there was something inside me saying the banking world was crazy,” he tells me. “I wasn’t very comfortable at all.”

The challenge to his moral code became too great to ignore. When May and his family decided to move home to Scotland, his employer assumed that he was having a midlife crisis. And, in a sense, he was. “I decided I wasn’t going back to the world of finance,” he tells me. “I was back in my home church and the call for the ministry became stronger.”

Those thoughts had been bubbling under the surface for some time, though unacknowledged. In 2007, as the banks hurtled towards crisis point, May began training for the ministry. As career moves go, the leap from banking to the Church of Scotland was a big one. Did he ever question it?

“You have doubts. But it’s affirmed by your progression,” he says. “Throughout your training, you work in a church environment on placements and with a minister, and you’re constantly assessed. There’s that sense of affirmation.”

While he was studying, RBS and AIB were on the brink of ruin. It didn’t come as a shock to him. “You could see all the signs when I was there. Most of the bank’s loan book was in property, a lot of it residential. I remember a member of staff at AIB coming to me wanting to buy her first flat in Dublin, and she wanted to borrow seven times her salary. I challenged it, but I was told to sign it off. Different times.”

By 2012, when May was settling in to his new parish, payday lending was booming. He quickly started a food bank, but the need for more preventative action was clear. As a result, Castle Community Bank (CCB) was formed last year from the merger of two local credit unions. May, the director of this not-for-profit bank, describes it as a “social justice mission” that provides the community with an affordable alternative. People often don’t realise that they do have a choice, he says.

“Someone using payday lenders will borrow, say, £300 and then take out another loan to repay it. All they needed was the £300 loan spread over 12 or 18 months to let them get back on their feet.”

Leith has undergone a stark transformation in recent years. It was listed among the UK’s top “hipster hot spots” last year, but deprivation and hardship remain. The demand at the Edinburgh north-east food bank, of which May is chair, attests to that. And while the City regulator saw to the payday lenders, the local pawn shops and cash convertors are as prominent as ever.

The CCB operates on a basic savings and loans model. According to May, what is crucial is that clients have access to it 24 hours a day, which they can’t with most credit unions. Its membership has grown by more than 50 per cent in the past six months, in part as a result of online applications that facilitate the kind of quick and easily available lending that payday lenders have used to such damaging effect.

“Why should the poorest have to pay more for good services?” May says. “We can’t solve every problem and we have to be a responsible lender. If someone’s in a mess, we’ll send them for debt advice. But we see what we can do.”

May is back in the world of finance, but as far from his past life as he could imagine.

“I wouldn’t change anything. It’s tiring, but everyone helping out – including the board – is doing it voluntarily, and with that same sense of a call to make a difference for other people,” he tells me.

“They might not all be driven by God, but there is that moral compass.”

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

Photo: Getty
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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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