In parts of the UK you’ll find shoppers shunning sterling in favour of local money. But how do you set up your own currency, and why is it even necessary?
The London district of Brixton and the city of Bristol have many things in common: a strong sense of community, a thriving cultural scene, a fiercely independent spirit and, for the past couple of years, their own money too.
But why have locals created their own currency, and why should you think about doing it too where you live?
Like a leaky bucket, the money trickles out
Marta Owczarek from the Brixton Pound, a currency which started in September 2009, says: “The core idea around an alternative currency is so that money stays in the neighbourhood.”
Marta uses a bucket metaphor to explain how local money can benefit local businesses.
“If you’re pouring in money to an area, the likes of Tesco, M&S and every other chain act like a hole – the money trickles out.
“However, using a local currency means the money stays in the region and circulates in the local economy.”
A local currency for local people
James Blair from the Bristol Pound, which launched in 2012, agrees that local currencies, which can only be spent in a particular town, city or region, strengthen the local economy.
“The Bristol Pound is a great example of this as it has incentivised people to use independent, local businesses.
“There are now almost 2,000 Bristol Pound account holders, and thousands more residents and visitors, using Bristol Pounds to pay for everything from food and bus tickets, to energy and council tax.”
How does it work?
Most local currencies work just like regular money and you can pay for things with notes and coins.
The main difference with local currency is that it’s not legal tender, and trade relies on local businesses cooperating with the scheme.
In Bristol over 800 independent businesses accept the £B.
As well as cash, some local currencies allow you to buy items using your mobile phone too.
The Bristol Pound, for example, operates a “TXT2PAY” SMS system where shoppers can pay via a text message, which debits an online account to the value of whatever it is you’re buying.
‘Pieces of art’
Choosing what your cash will look like is a key aspect of starting your own currency.
“Most pound sterling notes are bland,” says Marta, unlike the eye-catching designs found on the paper Brixton Pounds, which have been created by local artists.
“We have a black historian, a basketball player, a rock star and a spy on our fluorescent notes – they’re pieces of art.”
Musician, actor and record producer David Bowie and his family lived at 40 Stansfield Road, Brixton, from 1947-1953.
Making your money stand out is critical, she argues. “Everyone in London is so busy, there’s so much stuff going on, there’s so much information.
“Suddenly there’s this note that’s like, ‘wow - that looks cool, what is that?’ And that grabs your attention.”
Getting buy-in from the community is also key when it comes to choosing what your notes and coins will look like.
“Over 300 artists, amateur and professional, and school children, all from Bristol, entered a competition to design the paper Bristol Pounds,” James explains.
Bristol based illustrator and signwriter Zoë Power (@zoepowpower) designed the 1 Bristol Pound note.
Mo money mo problems
If you’re thinking that setting up a local currency sounds like a good idea, unfortunately, you can’t just begin printing your own cash as there are a few challenges to overcome first.
Finding the right equipment to print your money and ensuring it has all the right security features in place – such as the watermark found on pound sterling notes - is one of the main concerns.
“Brixton Pound paper notes are made at a specialist printer,” explains Marta.
“They have more security features than pound sterling – they are pretty much unforgeable.”
There are also various regulatory hoops to jump through.
“Meeting all the financial regulations has been tricky, but we’ve worked with others across the UK who are setting up their own currencies to make sure we get it right,” says James.
Getting people to embrace a new currency
If you’re able to print your money and dot the Is and cross the Ts when it comes to the legal stuff, getting people to actually use your new currency is one of the main obstacles to success.
However, looking at both Brixton and Bristol, picking areas with a strong community identity certainly helps it seems.
“Getting the people of Bristol to understand and embrace the Bristol Pound hasn’t been as big a challenge as we first thought,” says James.
“Bristol’s community spirit and openness to new ideas has meant people have taken the Bristol Pound to their hearts, and into their wallets.”
To find out more visit the Brixton Pound and Bristol Pound websites.
How far is the UK from giving up on notes and coins? Read our in-depth report Cashless Nation.