PUBLISHED:16:20 EST, 22 September 2012| UPDATED:10:43 EST, 23 September 2012
For anyone fed up with seeing trade and spending power being leached away from their communities – and there seem to be plenty of them – a solution of sorts is at hand.
The march of the giant retailers may be hollowing out the High Street but, increasingly, local people have found a way to fight back against the power of big money: print your own.
Last week, Bristol became the first city to launch its own currency, the ‘Bristol pound’, but it is far from being the first community to engage in what amounts to a do-it-yourself version of the Bank of England’s ‘quantitative easing’ money-printing operation.
Across the decades, hard-hit towns and neighbourhoods have created their own currencies to stimulate economic activity. But a new crop combines this home-grown reflation with the power of the loyalty card system to keep purchasing power circulating within a community rather than heading out the door to far-flung shopping centres.
And this combination may prove to be a winner.
Last week, Tesco chief executive Phil Clarke tolled the bell for the giant hypermarkets pioneered by his company, seeing a future in which shopping was split between online purchases and visits to smaller stores.
‘In this new world, retail will not be about buying large swathes of new real estate, but about how we, as businesses, relate to our customers and their communities,’ he said.
It was rather as if the head of the Danish Bacon Company had hailed a vegetarian future.
But then, perhaps Clarke had visited Brixton, whose well-established ‘Brixton pound’ is acceptable not only in many local stores but at Lambeth Town Hall, which will take the local currency in payment of business rates.
Available in £1, £5, £10 and £20 notes and through pay-by-text mobile payments, the ‘pound’ is intended to encourage local trading and local sourcing in the area.
About 200 businesses accept Brixton pounds, which were launched in 2009. Binki Taylor, co-founder of homewares retailer Circus in Brixton Village and the director of the Brixton pound, says: ‘It is used more in restaurants and cafes because they have greater footfall. But we have found the Brixton pound pay-by-text is actually more efficient than our credit-card system.’
Like sterling, the Brixton pound is not immune to a redesign. Ellie Conolly, 55, of Cannon & Cannon specialist food retailer, said: ‘The old design is defunct and I did not realise and have been taking them as tips.’
Because the Brixton pound can be used only in participating shops, Cannon & Cannon, which launched three months ago, has used the takings to fund a staff party. Companies that are part of chains based outside Brixton, such as Ritzy Cinema, part of Picture Houses, said they did not accept the currency.
But Lambeth Council not only accepts the money for business-rate payments but can also pay some of its employees a portion of their salary in electronic Brixton pounds, should they wish.
Local currencies have a long history and, outside Brixton and Bristol, current schemes include the ‘Stroud pound’ in Gloucestershire and the ‘Lewes pound’ in East Sussex.
Schemes have appeared in Canada, the US, France, Germany and elsewhere.
They thrive during economic downturns, when official money is hard to come by and local people see no reason why they need to wait for supplies of legal tender in order to trade with each other.
But in Britain, a refusal to wait for the authorities to kick-start local economies is matched by impatience at the likely length of time before official initiatives such as last year’s review of Britain’s ailing High Streets by retail guru Mary Portas has any impact.
You may have thought the prospect of lots of local currencies would be nightmarish for Revenue & Customs. Not a bit of it.
‘If someone is conducting a trade then any income is taxable, like any other form of trading,’ said a spokesman. Nor is the taxman fazed by having to figure out an ‘exchange rate’ from local currencies into sterling.
But here is one instance where local pounds will not be accepted. In payment of tax, only British pounds will do.
Funny money: The Brixton, Bristol, Totnes and Stroud pounds
VICKI OWEN: ‘The Brixton pound is fun money – but I’m not sure it would cut it with the weekly shop’
It seemed the most normal thing in the world as the girl in Morleys department store directed me to the menswear section to change my boring old British notes for Brixton pounds.
‘Of course,’ said the assistant, and my £10 note was swapped for five crisp and colourful Brixton pound notes and a Brixton five pound note.
They look more like gig tickets than currency, with their Stockwell skate park graffiti embellishment and a picture of a British basketball player, Luol Deng. The £10 note features David Bowie. This is fun money.
But what do I do if no one wants it? How do I change it back? The girl in Morleys directed me across the road to Cheques For Cash, but lots of businesses accept the currency, and some offer discounts if you pay that way, she said.
No such luck with the discounts. And some shop-keepers laughed at me when I asked if I could pay with the Brixton pound. ‘No, we don’t take it. We can’t pay that into the bank,’ one said, laughing.
But almost every independent cafe and shop in Brixton Village is adorned with a B£ symbol in its window.
This is great, so long as I want to spend all my Brixton fun money there.
Luckily, Brixton Village has a lot to offer, but I don’t think I would have much success doing my regular shopping with Brixton pounds.