Launched over four years ago by Transition Town Brixton, the Brixton Pound was set up to support Brixton businesses and encourage local trade and production. But is it working and making a difference? Or is just a novelty?
Keen to find out some answers, we fired off a salvo of questions to the Brixton Pound Engagement Manager, Tom Shakhli:
[Brixton Pound electronic currency launch, Sept 2011]
Could you sum up what the pound is all about and more importantly, what it’s supposed to achieve and why anyone in Brixton should use it?
Tom: The B£ is a local currency, the first urban currency in the UK. Before the B£ local currencies were associated with rural market towns like Totnes, Stroud and Lewes. All local currencies are different, focusing on their specific areas, and in Brixton our focus was on supporting local businesses and encouraging people to use them rather than larger, corporate alternatives.
Economically this is beneficial, as money spent locally circulates faster and stays in the area longer.
However, the B£ is about more than shopping locally. It is about democratising money and attempting to level the game so that money works for citizens, not vice versa.
Russell Brand was recently in the news saying people in this country are fed up of the status quo, and that a self-serving elite is preventing change. Political activism is often seen as the default answer but real change will not emerge until we reclaim our economies. The B£ is a form of direct action that sets out to achieve this.
A critical mass of people using the B£ would have a transformative impact in Brixton. So my message would be to use the B£ and help build the local economy that you want.
I understand there’s a discount for people buying goods and services with the pound. Could you explain how that all works?
Tom: When pay-by-text launched in 2011 we offered a 10% bonus as an incentive. So if you add £10 credit to your account, you receive 11 B£. At the other end, if a business wants to exchange its B£ balance back into sterling then it can do so with a 10% charge.
The idea is that this encourages them to circulate the money locally, or even pay their business rates to Lambeth in B£. Very few businesses have taken up the option of exchanging back into sterling.
However having consulted widely with businesses we have agreed to end the 10% model as of January 2014, as the 10% charge is considered too inflexible and prevents many from joining up in the first place.
By ending this we will see more businesses accept pay-by-text. We will then work with businesses to see if it is possible to offer certain deals for B£ customers. The White Horse does this already and we think that this way offers a more positive term of engagement for businesses and customers.
I already shop in Brixton and use local traders. Surely by claiming a discount, I’m effectively depriving them of some of their income?
Tom: I think that most businesses are very grateful for the promotion of their businesses and the idea of shopping locally in Brixton. It is no surprise that the places that have embraced the B£ the most have seen the most trade.
We are very grateful too – we do not take their involvement with the B£ for granted and think they are brilliant for their support.
It requires a leap of faith and a local conscience that you won’t find in many parts of London. Even if you already shop locally, by using the B£ you are actively asking that business to do more than just use Brixton as a trading post, but to be rooted in the community.
Most businesses appreciate what we stand for and can make the connection that a strong B£ is good for Brixton and good for them.
How has take-up been? Would you judge the Pound to be a continuing success of a flash in the pan?
Tom: We have seen consistent year on year growth. Over 250 businesses accept the notes, and around half take pay-by-text. We have around 1,300 registered accounts, and there is approximately £100,000 in circulation.
We have also piloted new projects such as one where Lambeth staff opt in to have their salary part paid in B£ or send monthly B£ donations to local charities. Just this week Brixton Foodbank used its balance to buy a huge amount of food at Faiz grocery store in Brixton Village.
The beauty of local currency is that there is this space to innovate and find new ways to make it work for people. The B£ is a trailblazer and we are not going to just sit back and watch the currency do its thing. Local currencies are an adaptive behavior project as much as anything else, and it is not like there is a blueprint that we are following.
It will take time to get to the point where there is a critical mass of people who are using the currency and making a significant difference to the local economy, but we are definitely on the right path.
The pound was launched when Brixton was quite a different place. Given the recent gentrification do you think the pound should endeavour to be more social and target those struggling in the area?
Tom: As I mentioned earlier, the whole point of local currencies is to respond to local economic needs, so yes I think that helping those who are struggling is something we should strive for.
We are set up as a not-for-profit Community Interest Company to run the currency, but we also want to be active in working for economic justice.
We hope in the near future to see the B£ accepted in more grocery-type shops that serve people’s everyday needs, but we also want to look at how the B£ could tackle wider issues.
For example, I would like to see us work in schools and young people on financial literacy, and also work with the credit union to offer an alternative to payday lenders.
What do you view the biggest successes of the Pound so far and can you share any of your future plans?
Tom: That the B£ even got off the ground, let alone has run for four years, has been an amazing success in itself. Lots of areas across the country want to start their own currency – we get calls all the time asking for advice.
But how many have managed it since we did? One in Bristol and that is all. That tells its own story.
If I had to pin down the greatest success of the B£ it would be the role that it has played in making people identify Brixton as a place where the local economy matters. I think if you are new to the area you arrive in Brixton and maybe you think twice before you go to Tesco. You go and try the market.
I would wager that the Starbucks and Costa in Brixton underperform compared to other branches despite their prime location. Why? Because people know that in Brixton we do things a little differently, and I believe we have contributed to that.
In the future I think you’re going to see a much more vocal B£ but one that has ears too. I’d like B£ businesses and users to consider themselves members of it.
That would mean us holding an AGM of sorts, inviting people to come and have their say about how they want their pound to work for them and their community. We also have a very exciting new initiative that we are working on but I am afraid I have to keep under wraps for the time being.
All I can say is that it will make the B£ more accessible and more fun than ever.
More about the Brixton Pound: