MAKE YOUR OWN MONEY - THE BRIXTON POUND
Of the rapidly growing number of local currencies globally - some old, some new- the Brixton Pound, a currency that can only be used in one particular district in South-London, is by far the best known, not in the least because of the design of its banknotes, featuring portraits of David Bowie and other local heroes, and created by artists like Turner Pize winner Jeremy Deller. Its aim is not just economical -preventing money from going elsewhere- but also social, fostering the multi-ethnicity of the local community, for instance. But is the strategy really successful, or just another pastime game for middle-class people? And can its formula be applied as a one-size-fits-all economic solution to other areas and large cities? Experts have their doubts.
Next to the official, national currencies, about 300 complementary ones, including local currencies, are listed in the Complementary Currency Resource Center worldwide database. The Brixton Pound wasn't the first one, even not in the UK. But it is certainly the best known. Initiated in 2009 by a group of volunteers from Transition Town Brixton (TTB), a community-led organization for action on energy issues and climate change, it was also from the very beginning meant to be a complementary currency, working alongside and not replacing pounds sterling. In the UK, It is also the largest alternative in the UK to official sterling currency. The Bank of England does not consider these forms of currency legal tender, but the notes hold value in the same way as a gift-card from a department store, with the same kind of restrictions about where they can be spent. And Brixton Pound account holders can convert £Bs to and from pounds sterling at a 1:1 ratio.
The founders of the Brixton Pound wanted to do something to stop 80p of every £1 spent locally from leaking out of the area into the pockets of corporations, at the expense of small local traders. So they printed a currency that would have the same value as the pound, but could only be traded in independent Brixton shops, where the shopkeeper would also have to spend it locally.
"If you spend £5 on a cup of coffee in a chain store, the majority of that money just flies straight out to whoever owns the shares in the coffee chain," Brixton Pound Director Charlie Waterhouse explains, "If you spend 5 Brixton Pounds with a local, independent coffee shop, that money stands a much bigger chance to stay circulating in the area. It's about empowering people to be able to make positive, economic decisions in their everyday lives." Shop owners can either reinvest they Brixton Pounds or change them to sterling.
The scheme is a joint not-for-profit enterprise between Brixton Pound Community Interest Company and Brixton Credit Union. From the beginning the drive behind it was not just financial though but also social and political. The project was key to a series of initiatives that had to lead to a rapid revival of the most prominent feature of Brixton's city life, a street market that was closely linked to and a perfect reflection of Brixton's multicultural identity. Brixton is a district in South-London, and one of Greater London’s 35 major centers. It is mainly residential, and a multi-ethnic community, with a large percentage of its population being of African and Caribbean descent. The aim of the Brixton Pound was not just to boost the local economy by creating money that would stick to Brixton, supporting Brixton businesses and encouraging local trade and production, but also to reinforce the district's socio-cultural texture. A Brixton Pound Cafe opened in July 2016 on Atlantic Road as the first cafe in South London on a pay-what-you-can basis, and Brixton Pound is also a part of the Brixtopa movement, which runs workshops, but also poetry readings, and music events.
The political and cultural intentions behind Brixton Pound were also made clear from the very beginning through the choice of the people depicted of the four Brixton Pound notes: Local celebrities such as the community activist Olive Morris and the environmentalist James Lovelock figured on the first issue, whereas the second issue of featured Len Garrison, founder of the Black Cultural Archives, on the B£1, Chicago Bulls' Luol Deng on the B£5, David Bowie on the B£10 and World War II secret agent Violette Szabo on the B£20. The reverse of the notes of this second issue, designed by Brixton agency This Ain't Rock'n'Roll, include notable local landmarks such as the Stockwell Skatepark, or public art on Electric Avenue. Finally, all four notes feature a design motif inspired by Coldharbour Lane's Southwyck House. Turner Prize winner Jeremy Deller even created a psychedelic 5 year anniversary note, an there's no doubt that the design of these notes, and especially the Bowie one, contributed enormously to the succes of the Brixton Pound, locally but also internationally.
The B£ was the UK’s first local currency in an urban area and the fourth transition town to have its own currency
The B£ was the UK’s first local currency in an urban area and the fourth transition town to have its own currency, following the Totnes Pound in Devon, Lewes Pound in Sussex and Stroud Pound in Gloucestershire. The local Lambeth council endorsed the Brixton Pound project, which the New Economics Foundation helped to develop. But the revival of Brixton Market itself came largely through a revitalization project led by the nonprofit organization Space Makers Agency, in cooperation with Friends of Brixton Market, a local group that succeeded in getting the market listed by the Department of Culture for heritage protection. The market, originally built and developed in the 1920s and ’30s, was for years the thriving commercial heart of London’s Afro-Caribbean community, and not just of the district. Thanks to the project –in which pop up shops and an often improvised schedule of workshops, live performances and other activities played a major role- the market’s became a hub for that community again. In less than a year it burst back into life and became a thriving marketplace.
Meanwhile, the notes of the Brixton Pound have already become highly collectable items, attracting a lot of media attention and encouraging new visitors to come to Brixton, their real value exceeding the nominal one by far. In 2011, the Brixton Pound launched an electronic version of the currency where users can pay by text message, and the organisation is also involved in the digitalisation of its currency, using Cyclos software. In June 2015, according to the Brixton Pound, some £1 million had been issued in £Bs, with more than £B700,000 still in circulation. More than 800 businesses accept Brixton Pounds and more than a thousand users have a Brixton Pound account. Brixton became the first city in the UK in which taxes and business rates can be paid in Brixton Pounds. Brixton City Council, and other organisations in the city, offer their employees the option to take part of their salaries in Brixton Pounds. The former Mayor of Brixton George Ferguson even accepted his entire salary in Brixton Pounds. The world's first local currency cash machine opened in 2016 on Market Row, and since June 2015 energy bills can also be paid in Brixton Pounds to the 100% renewable energy provider Good Energy.
As fears for financial stability took hold during the recession, complementary currencies like the Brixton Pound kept growing in popularity.
As fears for financial stability took hold during the recession, complementary currencies like the Brixton Pound kept growing in popularity. But their impact also remains subject to discussion. While proponents say complementary currencies boost spending in smaller geographical areas, which can also have environmental benefits as businesses cut transport distances to deal with local suppliers, detractors say they have no real economic impact and work only as a game for the middle classes, who can afford to buy from independent shops rather than chains. And even with £B700,000 in circulation, in a population of some 450,000 people, that's the equivalent of each Brixtonian carrying less than £B2 in change in their pocket.
"The small scale is a problem and a strength," says Stephen Clarke, chief financial officer of the Brixton Pound. "The benefit comes from the fact that local currencies are trusted organisations: we're a Community Interest Company limited by guarantee." That means assets owned by the the Brixton Pound have to be used for the good of the community, rather than purely for profit.
Clarke admits that the small scale of local currencies means they are "always scrabbling around looking for money". One way founders of the Brixton Pound have addressed this is by setting up an umbrella organisation, the Guild of Independent Currencies, to share information between local currencies in the UK and help new organisations. "At the moment we're all reinventing the wheel every time," Clarke says. Yet small size also has other advantages, he adds. Sometimes, the smallest places are best able to support complementary currencies because the people who live there are engaged with their local economy in a meaningful way. Clarke even doubts if a local currency that would cover the whole of London would be successful: „When we first produced the Brixton Pound note, people were really proud of it. It got through to people not just sat around coffee shops. I'm not sure a London Pound would work, because people identify with their local area in London rather than the city as a whole“.
some areas like Brixton have relied heavily on engaged communities to fill in gaps in public services
Clarke even doubts if a local currency would be the right solution for all areas of a large metropolis like London, especially the poorer ones. Brixton Pound users don't have high incomes necessarily, but surveys show they are engaged with their local community and they have a higher educational attainment than average. In the years since the financial crisis, as local authority budgets have shrunk, some areas like Brixton have relied heavily on engaged communities to fill in gaps in public services. By contrast, deprived areas where people cannot afford time and money to put into their community have become more deprived, making them even harder for local currencies to reach."It is difficult to get into more disadvantaged areas," Clarke says. "When you go there with the Brixton Pound hat on you realise there aren't independent shops there, there's an Aldi and Lidl and that's it."
The fact that complementary currencies have therefore been accused of being a game for middle-class people, explains why experts have stopped thinking of complementary currencies as a one-size-fits-all rather and a genuine economic solution. They see them rather function as a kind of 'gateway drug' to introduce people to a new way of thinking about money. Every time a Brixton Pound transaction is made, 1.5 per cent already goes into a Brixton Fund, for instance. This is used to give micro-grants of between a few hundred and £2000 to local projects and community groups. "We aim to target projects that aren't large enough to apply for more formal grant funding," says Lucy Çava, project manager at the Brixton Pound."We see this as part of community building – linking the Brixton Pound user with community groups, so both groups become more visible to each other through the currency and fund. This is particularly important in Brixton because of the gentrification debates which are very salient round there," Çava says.
Meanwhile, the people behind the Brixton Pound are also readying a mutual credit network called Brixton Prospects. Through this network, businesses in Brixton can exchange credit in the form of loans that are neutralised within the network, helping one another to grow without relying on the high rates of commercial lenders. Once operational, loans offered through the Prospects network will have negative interest, so that businesses are encouraged to pass credit on as quickly as possible. "That's the plan," says Clarke, "because it's rather like a hot potato: people will want to pass it on. But we know from research that a number of small businesses in Brixton are struggling to get money on reasonable terms,and that banks are not interested in smaller loans to businesses. So we think there is a strength in the Brixton Pound network to start something like this that is linked, but separate."
Duncan McCann, a researcher at the New Economics Foundation says he knows that challenge is worthwhile. "As people we have a right to make credit and loan money. We mustn't forget that. We mustn't leave that to corporations and the state," he says. (mb)