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It's boom time for the debt doctors

Dave Harvey | 17:27 UK time, Wednesday, 21 October 2009

South Petherton is a smallish village on the Somerset Levels, not at all the sort of place you'd expect to find a booming modern business.

But I've got used to surprises reporting this recession. The company I'm looking for is in a converted barn on a potato farm, just outside the village.

Debt Dr HQ in South Petherton
Jeremy Hockley runs the place, he employs nine people here and another 50 around the UK. And when we meet, I joke that he's the one person most people in the country would happily see go bust.

Mr Hockley calls himself "the debt doctor". His firm helps people suffering the thick end of the recession. Outright bankruptcy or just ends that don't meet, he has advisors all over the country.

"Eighteen months ago we had 15 guys," he tells me. "Now there are over 50 of us. I'm afraid we'll be in business for a while yet."

If you want to measure the human cost of this recession, Mr Hockley's firm is a good yardstick. When the credit crunch first hit, his enquiries went through the roof.

Today, one of his advisors is talking to Cassie Russell. The details, as ever, are hugely complicated. But the headline is simple, and stark. Cassie and her family are £17,000 in the red. It started with a car loan, then that was "consolidated" into another larger loan, and so on.
cassie russell
"The company that sold us the first loan could see we couldn't really pay it," she tells me. "I know we were responsible too, but we didn't think we had any choice. They shouldn't really have lent us that money so easily."

Today, Cassie is starting the bankruptcy process. It's not without its problems, but it will give her a clean start. In the UK, this now happens once every four minutes.

"Every day we're seeing more people like Cassie," Mr Hockley tells me.

"And the amount they owe is going up too. The trouble is, the old methods of refinancing their debts have vanished. Extra mortgages, unsecured loans, that sort of thing - none of that is possible any more."

The other side of the West Country, in a bustling market in Devizes, I meet a very different woman - but hear the same tale. Sarah Cardy runs West Wiltshire Citizens' Advice Bureau. Unlike the Debt Doctor her advice, of course, is free. And so when the numbers of people seeking help shot up, she needed to get extra funding.

Wiltshire CAB on the Road

The CAB has just had £288,000 from the county council for a new helpline, offering advice to people caught short in the recession. And Sarah's noticed a major new trend.

"We used to hear from people who found themselves £30 or £50 short at the end of the month. Now people are finding themselves more like £1,500 out of pocket. They've made commitments to loans and mortgages, and when they lose their job, it all gets very tough."

Experts tell us that the recession is starting to ease slightly, that numbers out this Friday might show UK PLC actually growing slightly, or at least shrinking less than we have for the last five quarters.

Does it feel that way to you? Or are you, like thousands of people seeking help with mountainous debts, still trying to sort out the wreckage from the credit crunch?

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