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Swansea Building Society posts record results through pandemic

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Swansea Building Society posted its best-ever set of results in 2020 as it benefitted from supporting local communities by keeping its growing network of local branches across South Wales open through the pandemic while reaping the rewards of a five-year investment programme it started in 2015.

Its total assets, mortgage balances, savings, capital and profits all reached record highs last year despite the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic. This planned increase was the result of a comprehensive investment plan kickstarted in 2015, which has seen it open three new branches, upgrade back-office systems and hire new talent across the business.

Employees in the financial services sector were classed as key workers throughout the COVID-19 pandemic as government wanted to ensure individuals had access to their finances. By keeping all of its branch offices open for face-to-face and telephone/e-mail contact, Swansea Building Society was able to welcome many new savers and mortgage customers despite the challenges of the last 12 months.

For the 12 months to December 31, 2020, the Society’s total assets increased by £44 million to £414.4m, a growth rate of 12%; its mortgage balances increased by £29.6 million to £302.9 million, an increase of 11%; and its savings balances increased by £41.1 million to £386.8 million, a 12% rise. All of the growth in net mortgage lending was funded by increases in retail savings balances from personal customers deposits.

The Society posted a pre-tax profit of £3.3 million compared with the £2.3 million it made a year earlier in 2019. Although its levels of mortgage lending were slightly down due to the disruption of the pandemic (£67.1 million versus £74.3 million a year earlier) it also reduced its expenses to £4.8 million compared with £5 million in 2019. The Society has now delivered annual pre‐tax profits greater than £2m in each of the last seven years.

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Swansea Building Society remains one of the few financial institutions in the UK that receives no wholesale funding or support from the Bank of England in the form of cheap funding. Its balance sheet is funded entirely by customer savings balances and its own capital reserves built up from retained profits over many years.

The Society continued with its ethos of ‘opening not closing’ branches, in contrast to most financial institutions. It has opened new branches in Carmarthen, Cowbridge and Swansea City Centre in recent years. This benefitted it through the pandemic as more customers sought a personal, friendly and local service, and many savers, worried by economic crisis, also looked to spread their assets.

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Alan Williams, Chief Executive of Swansea Building Society

Alun Williams, Chief Executive of Swansea Building Society, said: “Despite the many challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Society has weathered the health and economic disruption associated with the pandemic during 2020. We remained open and responsive to our customers throughout, which I think was appreciated by many local communities who were also, of course, staying local.

“It is our aim to enable individuals and families to realise their goals of a better and more secure future and the way we supported communities fitted well with that. We provided support to over 400 mortgage members with payment holidays. We also saw an uplift in savers coming to us, some of whom, concerned by the potential for a second banking crisis, were keen to spread their assets.

“In addition to that dynamic, in 2020 we truly reaped the rewards of the investment programme we started in 2015, not just in branches but in talent and infrastructure including IT. Last year was the first year for a while when there was no additional capital expenditure as part of that investment programme, which meant our expenses reduced.

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“As ever, as a mutual, our profits will be reinvested into the business, strengthening our capital base so that we can continue to support our members and offer competitive savings rates and a personal, tailored and common-sense approach to mortgage lending with competitive mortgage products. They will be used for the future development of the Society as we consider further expansion and new branches across Wales.

“Despite the pandemic, 2021 finds the Society in a confident mood. The investment that the Society made in opening three new retail branches, refurbishing our Head Office in Cradock Street, and investing in new staff and improved IT systems, has started to pay real dividends.

“2021 will continue to be challenging and uncertain. The record low Bank of England Base interest rate is likely to remain low for a longer period. The Society will continue to adapt and deal with the challenges that arise head on, whilst continuing to deliver a first-class member service and growing our balance sheet and capital reserves in a controlled manner.”


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Education

Neath Abbey Welsh medium primary school given go-ahead

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Neath Port Talbot Council’s new Rainbow Coalition Cabinet has agreed to move forward with plans to open Neath Port Talbot’s first ever Welsh medium primary “starter school” at Neath Abbey.

The new Welsh medium starter school in premises previously occupied by Abbey Primary School at St John’s Terrace, Neath Abbey, could welcome its first pupils next January if fully approved.

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Part of the council’s strategy to increase Welsh medium education across the county borough, the Cabinet agreed to move the starter school plan to its next stage – publication of a statutory proposal to establish the new school.

The starter school model is used when establishing a new school, gradually allowing the facilities and staff to be used efficiently while the school grows to its full potential.

Under the plans, £200,000 would be set aside for refurbishments and improvements including the provision of learning walls and digital equipment ensuring the school can deliver the new curriculum.

Cllr Nia Jenkins, Cabinet Member for Education, Skills and Training, said: “This council has a ten year target to increase the number of Year 1 children taught through the medium of Welsh from 16.8% in 2020/21 to 31% (460 pupils) by 2032 and this proposed new school will help reach that target.

“It also complements the national vision for the Welsh language, to have a million Welsh speakers by 2050.”

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(Lead image: Neath Port Talbot Council)

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Swansea Bay NHS

Maggie’s making a big difference for adults with learning disabilities

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For over a decade, Maggie Higgins has made a big difference to the lives of people with learning difficulties and hearing loss – contributing to work which can help reduce the risk of them developing dementia.

Her support has even helped one adult hear birds singing clearly once again.

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For others, it helps fulfil their potential and maximise their independence despite any difficulties they may face.

Now her work has been recognised through a major NHS award.

Maggie’s responsibilities within the speech and language service, which is managed by Swansea Bay and hosted in Cardiff and Vale, involves supporting adults with a learning disability, particularly hearing loss.

She has helped improve services around successful assessment, diagnosis and ongoing support for hearing loss, while a key part of her role includes overseeing the Positive Approaches to Supporting the Senses (PASS) group, which she set up with clinical psychologist Dr Sara Rhys-Jones.

PASS works closely with audiology experts to support patients, many of whom have had no concerns highlighted about their hearing, or had not been assisted in attending hearing tests or follow up appointments.

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Significantly, Maggie’s work has led to a sustained sevenfold increase in referrals to audiology services for people with a learning disability – lowering the likelihood of undiagnosed or misdiagnosed hearing losses, which can decrease the risk of developing dementia.

Maggie has helped develop innovative new innovative learning disability and sensory impairment awareness training for professionals, families and carers. (Image: Swansea Bay NHS)

Maggie said: “This is particularly encouraging following a Lancet Commission report in 2020 which identified that ‘unsupported hearing loss is the single greatest preventable risk factor for developing dementia.’

“People with a learning disability are at far greater risk of having undiagnosed or unsupported hearing loss and are known to be three times more likely to develop dementia than the general public.

“I raise awareness and get people seen and supported appropriately to reduce the risk where possible.

“Sensory loss is particularly prevalent and frequently undiagnosed and unsupported amongst people with a learning disability. The responses that might indicate someone has a problem hearing are very often mistaken for characteristics of their learning disability.

“It is essential that we understand what someone can see and hear so that we provide the best possible support. We cannot accurately estimate the impact of a person’s learning disability unless we are aware of what they can see and hear.”

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Now in her 20th year with the speech and language service, Maggie has spent the last 12 years focusing on the impact of sensory loss on people with learning disabilities.

It is an area which she is particularly passionate about.

She said: “When I started this work, the link between unsupported hearing loss and dementia was not known but that was not the primary reason that I started to work on it.

“It was the fact that people weren’t recognising the signs of sensory loss and people were not accessing assessments. The work has become even more important now that we understand there is a link.

“You can’t underestimate the difference it can make to the lives of people with previously undiagnosed issues who go on to have hearing aids fitted.

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“One lady left her hearing aid fitting appointment and burst into tears because she could hear the birds singing.

“It is terribly frustrating for individuals who, given the right support, could be involved to a much greater degree.

“When hearing aids are fitted or communication is adapted appropriately, the difference in people’s ability to engage with others and their environment can be overwhelming to see, irrespective of whether or not they use verbal communication.”

Maggie also created My Hearing Action Plan to help people with learning disabilities and their carers understand their hearing loss and the methods they can implement.

Following diagnosis of hearing loss, Maggie and her team support individuals, carers and staff to understand the impact of that person’s particular hearing loss on their communication and daily living.

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Working with Occupational Therapist Maura Shanahan, she developed innovative learning disability and sensory impairment awareness training for professionals, families and carers, which enables them to experience particular levels of hearing loss.

It has led to an increase in the use of sensory-supportive approaches that help people with learning disabilities improve their health, well-being and quality of life.

Her efforts over the past decade have recently gained recognition in the form of being named the outright winner of The NHS Employers Award at the 2022 UK Advancing Healthcare Awards.

The award category identifies an outstanding achievement by an apprentice, support worker or non-registered technician in an allied health professional or healthcare science service.

She added: “I was totally amazed to be shortlisted, let alone win the award in my category.

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“I have thoroughly enjoyed working in the speech and language service for 20 years, so it was a really lovely way to celebrate that landmark.

“Working with adults with a learning disability is an absolute privilege.”

(Lead image: Swansea Bay NHS)

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Ambitious plans for city’s future unveiled

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Ambitious plans for Swansea have been unveiled by the leader of the council – including further transformation of the city centre.

Building on success stories like the Swansea arena, new schools and play areas and a £750m new deal for the city centre, the city is set to be transformed in the coming years.

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And as Swansea heads into a summer packed with major international sports, music and cultural events, they’re helping set the stage for an optimistic and vibrant future for the city.

Rob Stewart, Leader of the Council, said that plans being set out for the next five years include the transformation of Castle Square Gardens, the rejuvenation of Mumbles and the sweep of Swansea Bay and the delivery of new, exciting visitor attractions.

And he pledged that none of the city’s communities would be left behind thanks to tens of millions of pounds of investment in road improvements, street cleaning and community facilities alongside support for struggling families and the homeless.

Castle Square is due to be transformed in the coming months (Image: Swansea Council)

He said: “Swansea has always been a city of ambition. Now it is a city delivering on our people’s priorities.”

Among the highlights of the city’s ambition for the future include the delivery of a £750m city centre transformation that started with the arena, delivering a city centre community hub and a new role for the former Debenhams store.

Other pledges include making progress on the £1.7bn Blue Eden renewable energy scheme set to include a tidal lagoon, developing a new aquarium and building new hotels in the city centre and near the Swansea.com Stadium.

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The opening an outdoor adventure park on Kilvey Hill in 2025 that would include cable cars, ziplines and luge runs.

Plans for the Skyline adventure park on Kilvey Hill form part of the council’s future vision for the city (Image: Swansea Council)

The council will also build hundreds more energy-efficient council properties, while also upgrading existing homes to help reduce fuel bills.

Highways are set for investment with a £10m boost for road repairs, new PATCH road repair teams being rolled out, more electric vehicle charging points and more walking and cycling routes.

Other commitments for Swansea communities include Cleansing, littering and weeding teams dedicated to every neighbourhood,

Continued support to encourage eligible households to claim the Welsh Government £150 cost of living payment, investment in thousands more trees, our parks and biodiversity with investment also seeing play area upgrades and improved skate facilities.

Swansea Council say they will spend £10m on road repairs in the next year (Image: Swansea Council)

Cllr Stewart said the free bus travel initiative and upgrades for outdoor play areas was helping families make ends meet at a time when every penny counts. At the same time city centre regeneration spearheaded by the council was attracting millions of pounds of private sector investment.

He said: “The cost of living crisis and climate change will be among the biggest challenges any of us will face over the coming years.

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“From food banks to free bus travel, from better homes to better schools, we’ll carry on supporting families and communities who are struggling to get by.

“We’ll continue investing in major projects and community priorities like schools, children’s welfare and adult wellbeing. This combined investment enables resilience and promotes wellbeing. It creates and protects jobs and it makes Swansea a better place to live, work and do business.

“And by investing in green energy, growing our green spaces and welcoming new people, new investment and fresh ideas, we can look forward to building a better future.”

(Lead image: Swansea Council)

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