Credit unions - first established on UK shores in 1964 - are financial cooperatives run by their members.
Sometimes referred to as 'people's banks', they are often heralded as a viable alternative to the corporate anonymity of high street banks.
But they haven't really caught on in the UK perhaps because - while it's true that the unions are offering accessible, flexible loans - they're far from infallible.
Between 2005 and 2009, membership of UK credit unions increased by 30%.
Improving access to credit unions is a policy which receives broad cross-party support.
In 2010, for example, 170 MPs from all the major parties backed an Early Day Motion which called for improved access.
More recently, in 2012, Lord Freud told the House of Lords that the Government was committed to fostering the growth of credit unions.
"We are prepared to support this industry," the Welfare Reform minister said.
"[And] we are determined to support it in such a way that it becomes viable in the long term."
Despite the support, however, relatively few people use credit unions.
A 2006 report from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation found that only one in a hundred of the adult population belongs to a credit union.
According to Sean O'Connell, Senior Lecturer in Modern British History at Queen's University, Belfast, "British credit unions have strikingly failed to become widely established despite strong Government support."
O'Connell perhaps has an eye on his neighbour, Ireland. In 2010, 70% of Irish adults, about three million people, were members of a credit union.
Where are they going wrong?
Risk for customers
A significant number of credit unions do not yet generate enough income from their own activities to develop in a way that is useful to their members, relying instead on external sources of revenue or subsidies.
According to a report from the Research Unit for Financial Inclusion at Liverpool John Moores University, some of those that were unable to access external lines of credit were forced into "closing down services for some of the poorest members of society or even to closure".
In 2008, the Financial Services Authority reported that six UK credit unions failed through insolvency.
Although credit union members are protected by the FSCS, it's not ideal.
45% of the population struggle to make it to pay day each month before running out of cash, according to a report from R3, a trade body for insolvency professionals.
Many of those same people also feel financially excluded: unable to finance their monthly expenses through the high street banks.
The result is that many turn to payday loans, which charge extortionate amounts of interest for relatively small sums of money.
To avoid a spiralling cycle of debt, some, such as Ed Davey, the Minister responsible for consumer credit regulation, say that people should "consider affordable alternatives such as their local credit union".
Our alternatives to payday loans guide agrees.
However, moving to a credit union can be a major emotional and cultural step for borrowers used to the relative convenience of doorstep collected home credit to the responsibility needed to manage the repayments of a credit union loan.
According to Sean O'Connell, UK credit unions have been following "an inappropriate model of operating at a small, localised level with a philosophy linking loan provision to savings".
A recent report from the Research Unit for Financial Inclusion at Liverpool John Moores University concluded that, "significant support and handholding is often required to assist financially excluded individuals to transition into credit union membership".
Even with this support, some still find the transition problematic. Not least because...
Membership dependent on location or job
Credit unions aren't open to everyone.
Some may be limited to attendees of a particular church, employees of a particular company or residents of a particular area.
Most people can become a member by hook or by crook but it's not always the case.
There are six boroughs of London, for example, with no credit union open to their residents. Some may be able to go elsewhere but not all.
It is possible for people to start their own credit unions but unfortunately, it's by no means a simple process: it takes one to three years and, according to the association of credit unions, ABCUL, costs between £30,000 and £70,000.
An image problem
As we've seen above, credit unions can sometimes be risky, inaccessible and, once signed up, means more responsibility for consumers.
But it's also likely that these drawbacks are perceived to be more of a problem that they actually are. In other words: credit unions have an image problem.
According to a 2011 survey of Social Landlords in London, credit unions are often "negatively regarded... as 'poor person's banks'" and, therefore, those on low to moderate incomes are ambivalent about taking their services.
Last, but not least, there is the simple problem that credit unions charge for many services that UK consumers are used to getting for free.
In 2011, there were 25 credit unions with current accounts and 31,000 people making use of them.
Like most basic bank accounts, covered here, these current accounts provide debit cards but do not provide a cheque book or overdraft facility.
Unlike most basic bank accounts, however, credit unions impose charges for members with a current account.
For example, the Edinburgh based Capital Credit Union charges 95p a week, Glasgow Credit Union charges £1 a month and Newry Credit Union £2 a month.
As our guide to credit unions sets out in more detail, credit unions are already providing a huge range of services to their members.
In the near future it's likely that credit union accounts will become accessible via Post Office counters, making them easily available to anyone able to visit their local branch.
Over the longer term, it's likely that the trend for unions to merge will continue.
These larger unions will benefit consumers as they will have more money to invest in staff and in providing a greater range of financial products.
Send us your comments below and we'll add them to this page.
Please read our comments disclaimer first though.
We need your email address in case we need to get in touch regarding your comment. We won't share your email address with anyone else and (unless you choose otherwise, e.g. by subscribing to our newsletter separately) we'll only use it for the purposes of contacting you regarding this comment.
Please read our full disclaimer for important information that relates to the information and service we provide and your use of this site.
We aim to provide free reviews and comparisons of consumer products. To keep the site free, we are paid by some providers when new customers take products after they've clicked on our links. We don't allow our editorial content to be affected by those links, however we may not include all of the products available in the market.
If you would like to get in touch with us you can contact us here »
Want to find out more? Search the full guide here.
Let us know what you think and how we could improve.
This article made me feel:
What did you like most and what could we improve?
Anything you say here won't be made public. If you want to make a public comment, you can add it using the comments form at the end of the page.
If you've an idea for a topic or a story you think we should know about we'd love to hear from you. Find out more about contacting us and how you can get in touch here »