From the Brixton to the Bristol pound, how towns have turned to printing their own money to beat the High Street crisis

Read Time:5 Minute, 15 Second

By Dan Atkinson And Vicki Owen

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.

Alternative currency: Ellie Conolly paid for a staff party with Brixton poundsAlternative currency: Ellie Conolly paid for a staff  party with Brixton pounds

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.’

Financial Mail's Vicki Owen tries out the Brixton pound in a cafe
Success: Financial Mail’s Vicki Owen tries out the  Brixton pound in a cafe

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.

The Stroud PoundTotnes pound
 Introduction of the Brixton pound which can be used as currency in some Brixton shops and businessesThe Bristol pound

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.

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