ONE of the perks to being a journalist is that upon attending an official event or ceremony there is always the chance of some scraps from the buffet to be had once the formalities are over.

The buffet is also a good way of judging the importance of an organisation and how much money is available to it.

Having attended the Student Loans Company (SLC) official opening ten years ago, I recall the spread being one of the best, all lavish canapés and fancy desserts, with guests being housed in a smart gazebo erected outside its new home.

The refurbished ‘Memphis’ building – on a site once occupied by the town’s famous Paton and Baldwin knitting yarn manufacturer – also had the ‘wow’ factor, its £8.5m modern, airy open plan offices putting your average ramshackle office accommodation to shame.

It was described at the time as a “world class” environment – funded in part with a £3m grant from the former Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills – and has since won several awards for its design and eco-friendliness.

At that stage about 300 staff were on site, with more than 150 workers having transferred from the company’s old base at Mowden Hall, but staff numbers are now more than quadruple that.

So, over a decade on is it still all sweetness and light for the SLC?

Last year it was ranked the country’s worst public sector workplace with concerns including low wages and pay disparities, poor training, ineffective management and systems not fit for purpose.

Meanwhile, some ex-employees have complained of high levels of stress, brought about by dealing with students whose money hasn’t arrived, increasing workloads and unrealistic targets.

That said almost half of existing staff who transferred to Lingfield Point still work there and 131 staff are said to have ten years service or more.

There remains pride in the town that the SLC expanded to Darlington from its Glasgow headquarters and for every negative story you can find from those who have come through its doors you can find a positive one.

Mhairi and David Ledgerwood were among the first members of staff to take the plunge and relocate from Glasgow and say they are delighted with the way their careers have gone from strength to strength and the new lives they have made.

While in Darlington Mrs Ledgerwood undertook a master’s degree in creative writing and has since become just one of just nine playwrights to be part of a writer’s group, working with the prestigious Royal Court Theatre.

Her husband is also an active member of Darlington’s Quakers running club and keen marathon runner.

Mrs Ledgerwood said: “When a permanent trainer post came up at the Darlington office David was successful in his interview for it.

“At the time I wanted the opportunity to develop and thankfully was also successful in applying to be a personal assistant to the head of processing.

“I’m pleased with everything that we have achieved since. That’s probably something to do with moving to a new place, not knowing anyone and having to make the effort to get involved both at work and outside.

“Moving to Darlington has definitely opened up lots of new chapters for us.”

Anthony Hill, whose current role sees him being responsible for 350 staff in Darlington, said: “I’ve been with the SLC 12 years now and in my whole career I’ve only ever worked in student finance delivery.

“It’s great to see how the company has progressed and how many improvements have been introduced over the years to make things easier for customers and for those working to deliver a good service for them.”

Darlington Borough Council leader Bill Dixon says of late the SLC has “got its act together” and is a stable employer in the town.

He also credits the SLC with helping to draw other major employers to Darlington.

Councillor Dixon said: “We had the Department for Education in the town prior to that, but since then, with the help of The Northern Echo, that has been retained and gone up from 300 to 500 staff and we now also have the Disclosure and Barring Service on Alderman Best Way.

“When you get one of these agencies in the rest see the benefit and it becomes easier to attract more.

“The Student Loans Company really helped kickstart the whole Lingfield Point development, now you have the likes of Amec and others in there. To be fair it was [property developer] Marchday who were very keen to get people like that in to showcase Lingfield Point as a premier office development, and it has obviously worked.”

Marchday no longer exists, having been dissolved in April this year after it sold up and moved on from Lingfield Point, leaving private equity firm Clearbell to pick up the reins.

But its former director John Orchard – regarded as a key player in securing the SLC for Lingfield Point – has described the SLC’s relocation as a fantastic endorsement and a “massive vote of confidence” in Darlington.

Peter Lauener, SLC’s chief executive, who replaced Steve Laney – sacked last year after concerns about aspects of his leadership – said: “It’s hard to believe that a decade has passed since we moved into our premises at Lingfield Point when the delivery of student finance was centralised in Darlington.

“We’ve been made to feel very at home here and are pleased to have brought job and career development opportunities to the area, including apprenticeship schemes through local colleges.

“It’s been a pleasure to watch staff develop in their roles and progress in their careers at the company and I’m excited to see what the next decade brings.

"As we look to the future, the SLC’s 2020 Strategy recognises the need for us to continually look for new and innovative ways of working that will make the SLC a better place to work.”


:: The Student Loans Company is one of Darlington’s biggest employers with 1,300 staff. It also employs more than 2,700 staff in sites in Glasgow and Llandudno Junction, Wales

:: It administers student finance on behalf of the Government and has 8.2m customers and a loan book valued in excess of £100bn

:: More than two million applications for student finance are processed every year

:: The company paid out £7.8bn in loans and grants to new and existing students in the past year.