Jon Watt, Tuesday 21 August 2012
Back in 1949, an Ealing Comedy film called Passport to Pimlico featured a fictional group of local residents declaring independence from Britain and forming the Duchy of Pimlico – complete with its own immigration, police force and currency.
It may have been fiction then, but part of that story is fiction no longer as this month Tooting will become the latest in a series of urban areas to adopt its own currency – the Tooting Pound – with the aim of encouraging people to spend within the local community. According to Tim Bage of Transition Town Tooting, which is championing the project, ‘We’re bringing out a prototype at the Tooting Foodival on 23/24 September and hope to launch for real next year. It’s already been a year in the planning when we’ve been talking with local businesses, the community and schools to make sure everyone can have their say. We’ve found there’s a lot of support for it. It’s really more about the environmental and social values you embrace when you buy into a local currency, rather than the financial value itself.’
To get an idea of what residents of Tooting can expect, I spoke with Mehul Damani, Operations Manager at the Brixton Pound project, which launched three years ago and is the inspiration for the Tooting equivalent. ‘In a recent study it was found that local currencies inspire loyalty, community bonding, and a sense of ownership in one’s area,’ explains Damani. ‘And the Brixton Pound really was a local community project from the beginning – a collaboration between local businesses and the Transition Town project.’
Transition Town is a movement for a sustainable economy which looks to help communities to develop independence from global economic fluctuations. It sounds a bit of a mouthful but it’s been enormously influential in protecting some communities from the worst of the recession. ‘Since it began in 2009 with some artfully designed B£1, B£5, B£10 and B£20 notes, and a 1:1 exchange rate with pounds sterling, the currency has weathered the economic downturn remarkably well,’ explains Damani. ‘We like to think it has made Brixton more resilient and able to ride out the financial storm. There have been shops closing, but there have been more opening and Brixton feels like a vibrant and successful town. Currently we have about 200 businesses taking the Brixton Pound, mostly service-based industries like restaurants and bars, but also Morley’s and other fashion retailers. There aren’t geographical boundaries but it’s constrained by market forces.’
And those market forces have recently changed with the introduction of an electronic Brixton Pound, a new initiative that allows customers to pay by text. Not only has this made it more convenient for users, but it has also allowed Damani and his team to accurately monitor the movement of the currency for the first time.
‘When we first launched the notes in 2009 we quickly found that one the problems with that it’s difficult to monitor how much is being traded and where. You can’t take the money to a bank so it tends to be circulated quickly and we can now see how that works.’ This introduction of the electronic currency has been integral to the next stage in this pioneering project which will see Lambeth Council trial a system whereby part of an employee’s pay can be in Brixton Pounds. ‘We’re really hoping they will roll it out later this month,’ explains Damani. ‘A recent survey of council employees found that a majority were in favour of taking some of their pay packet in Brixton Pounds.’
Another exciting innovation will see Lambeth Council allow businesses to pay rates and council tax bills using the local currency. It’s the kind of development that Tim Bage and his fellow currency pioneers of Tooting will be watching closely in the hopes of convincing Wandsworth Council to adopt a similar policy.
When the Tooting Pound does eventually launch, it will become the fifth local currency in the UK (after Totnes, Lewes, Stroud and Brixton) and one of around 2,500 such currencies around the world, making Tooting part of a global shift away from conventional economics. As national and international currencies stumble, local communities appear to be taking matters into their own hands.