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Citizens Advice Bureaux Have Been Helping Guildford People For More Than 75 Years

Published on: 13 Mar, 2015
Updated on: 13 Mar, 2015

David Rose takes a look at the Citizens Advice Bureau in Guildford – from its wartime beginnings to how the organisation today helps thousands of people each year at its centres in Guildford town centre and at Ash.

A free advice service to anyone in difficulty started the day Britain declared war on Germany in 1939, and Guildford was one of the first towns to offer this service.

Back then the Citizens Advice Bureau (CAB) helped people with wartime rationing queries, blackout regulation and debt problems. The organisation has not stood still, and today advises people on a wide range of issues including the complexities of changes to the benefits system, employment, housing issues, and debt.


A peek inside Guildford’s Citizens Advice Bureau in about the late 1940s when it was in the Municipal Buildings in the High Street. Picture courtesy of the John Gay collection held by English Heritage.

Today, the borough of Guildford has two CABs – one in the town centre and another in Ash. CABs are sometimes perceived as being run by the public sector, yet the two serving Guildford are independent with charity status. However, they continue to be funded by Guildford Borough Council, a commitment from the local authority to its residents that goes back to the very beginning.

The Guildford bureau opened on September 11, 1939, in the council’s Municipal Buildings in the Upper High Street. Very soon it moved to a vacant shop unit next door. The Government had asked local councils and the National Council for Voluntary Organisations to set up these agencies and Guildford Town Council seconded a member of staff, H. Austin Bristow, as advisor, along with a secretary. Later an assistant, Avis Rutter, joined the team.

An earlier logo of the Citizens Advice Bureau, giving the image of a wise old owl at work!

An earlier logo of the Citizens Advice Bureau, giving the image of a wise old owl at work!

The staff received no special training for the job in hand and Mr Bristow interviewed those who were seeking advice in a formal style sitting at his desk. The premises was somewhat cramped, with Miss Rutter having to use the kitchen to conduct interviews when it was busy.

In comparing just how different things are now, the manager of the Guildford CAB, Joan O’Byrne, said: “CABs are still at the forefront of helping people with problems largely caused by change, but today we have highly trained and experienced advisors dealing with all kinds of problems for all kinds of people.

CAB logo“We deal with urgent and important problems faced by people as well as providing longer term support through our core services and specific funded projects. We support people with health issues through our Macmillan and mental health projects, and with money problems through our Homelessness Prevention and Poyle Money Advice projects. We work with other bureaux in the area as part of Citizens Advice Surrey and are a local centre for Healthwatch and the Local Assistance Scheme.”

Right from the start the CAB has used it knowledge of the situations that its clients face to influence policymakers to change unfair practices. Changes to rationing and extra clothing coupons for pregnant women were brought in during the war thanks to the CAB. In 2014 the Financial Conduct Authority introduced tough new rules on payday lenders in the light of a campaign by the CAB nationally.

In the post-war years CABs found themselves giving advice to people on how to access the then new National Health Service. Back then a slogan was used to promote and alert people to the CAB: “Use your Citizens Advice Bureau, if you don’t know the address ask a policeman or a postman.”

The Rent Act of 1957 saw an increase in enquiries to the CAB across the UK, and by the 1960s a quarter of enquiries related to housing.

Guildford CAB moved from the Upper High Street to offices in North Street in 1965. This is now occupied by the Laura Ashley store and previously had been a police station. The bureau had a reception on the ground floor and interview rooms and an office upstairs.

Introduction of decimalisation in 1971 saw many people asking the CAB for advice on this new system of currency.

But Guildford CAB did not remain in North Street long, before moving again in the 1970s to share premises at the then police station in Woodbridge Road.

That next move was to Guildford CAB’s current home in Haydon Place. The building was newly built although only the ground floor was occupied at first, as the upstairs was home to the Women’s Royal Voluntary Service and the Community Health Council. Today both floors are occupied.

Ash CAB opened in July 1979, in an annexe of the Victoria Hall. There had been calls to open a bureau in Ash for some years, and the campaigning by Rosemary Hall, a Guildford Borough Councillor and a member of Guildford CAB’s management committee, certainly helped see it come to fruition. She said at the time: “We have been hoping for the past five years to get something going in Ash, but there was nowhere to go.”

The earlier mentioned Avis Rutter of Guildford CAB became the new Ash centre’s organiser tasked with setting up the bureau, which opened with five advisors. It then moved to a portable building where it was based for 12 years before moving in 2000 to offices within the then new Ash Centre.

Today it serves a large population on the western edge of the borough of Guildford. It is a handy place for local people to call into, saving them a trip to Guildford town centre.

Members of the team at the Citizens Advice Bureau in Ash.

Members of the team at the Citizens Advice Bureau in Ash.

Outlining some of the services offered at Ash, The bureau manager Vicky Payne said: “We deal with a good deal of debt cases, some of these being referrals from Guildford Borough Council. We help people with their rent arrears and give them advice on budgeting and managing their finances. It is advice that helps prevent further problems in people’s lives.

“We have an independent living advisor who sees clients who are housebound and not able to get to the bureau, while two other members of our staff are engaged in preventing people becoming homeless.”

Ash is a mixed community and Vicky says it also has one of the largest traveller communities in the UK. She said that those coming to the area and making a permanent home here often need help and advice about settling in – Ash CAB works with them on all of that.

Vicky added: “We are a small bureau here in Ash and somewhat unusual in not being at a high street location. Some of our clients have been coming to us for many years. We have an excellent team of volunteer advisors, and generally once they come here they stay! We are proud of our volunteers and we train about five new volunteer advisors each year.”

Nationally, debt and benefit enquiries doubled at CABs in line with unemployment in the 1980s, while in the 1990s the Habitual Residence Test saw an increase in asylum seekers asking for advice. Bankruptcy and repossessions were key issues in the 2000s.

Since Guildford CAB has been in Haydon Place and the Ash CAB has been open many changes in the way client information is processed has taken place – from a paper filing system (that took up a two large bookcases at Guildford) to a national CAB computer system called Adviser Net, which is continually being developed.

Some of the current staff and volunteers based at Guildford Citizens Advice Bureau.

Some of the current staff and volunteers based at Guildford Citizens Advice Bureau.

Maire (pronounced ‘Moya’) Young has been a volunteer advisor at Guildford CAB for 26 years. Initially, volunteering one day a week, after six she years she became a trainer of new volunteers. Of the advice that Guildford CAB regularly gives she said: “We advise people on issues of benefits, the system of which often changes. Debt issues hit the South East quite late in recent times, and that is now quite a large portion of our work. Housing problems are huge. There are many people in Guildford who can’t afford to live here. To be a ‘have not’ is really tough.”

Maire’s work was recognised with a CAB Volunteer of the Year Award in 1999, and Princess Anne presented it to her at a special ceremony at the Barbican in London.

Her advice work once took her outside the Guildford bureau to clients at Brookwood mental hospital. The work she did there eventually saw to a paid person taking on the role. She has also worked with clients at Farnham Road Hospital in Guildford and the Canterbury Centre in Watenden Road.

She added: “I have found the work I do very rewarding and satisfactory. Where would a person go without the CAB?”

Today many people contact their CAB by phone and by email – things that were certainly not available 75 years ago. Joan O’Byrne adds: “In 2013-14 across Guildford, we (Ash and ourselves) saw over 6,000 people with over 19,000 different problems.  While in just one quarter (March to June 2014) more than 12,000 internet users in Guildford made over 16,000 visits to our Adviceguide website.

“The website covers a wide range of topics and nationally received nearly 55 million site views over the last year.”

Guildford CAB, 15 to 21 Haydon Place GU1 4LL, is open on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday from 10am to 4pm. Thursday from 10am to 6.30pm, and Saturday from 10am to noon.

Telephone: 01483 576699.


Ash CAB, Ash Hill Road, Ash GU12 5DP (at the rear of the Ash Centre), offers drop-in sessions, Monday to Thursday, 9.30am to 1pm; appointments, Monday to Thursday, 1.30pm and 2.45pm; and a telephone advice service on Fridays between 10am and 1pm.

Telephone: 01252 315569.


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