London’s Brixton Pound May Be The Most Successful Experiment Yet
By Paul Smart
There have been times, here and abroad, when money was something truly ephemeral. States had their own pounds before the Revolution. Anyone could start a bank and issue currency for nearly three decades starting with Andrew Jackson’s populist rise.
In more recent years, the rise of local currencies has been based on other models: Things such as Western Massachusetts’ Berkshares, various time-based systems based on the likes of the famed Ithaca Hours, and such European successes as the Brixton Pound, which circulates in the long-gentrifying London neighborhood where such former natives as David Bowie are featured on its bills.
The idea behind these complex methods of new economic sharing are quite simple, beyond legal complexities. The currencies are developed to be spent in a particular area at participating organizations, as a means of encouraging more money spent locally, and staying within a community. The intent is to embolden fiscal localism, taking the old concept of bartering into new territories…with underlying ideals agreed upon by the community utilizing the currency.
The Brixton Pound wasn’t the first British local currency experiment, but like others that began in the 2000s, it came out of the UK Transition Towns movement that began as a means of instigating greater awareness of environmental sustainability on a community-by-community basis (Marbletown, in our area, may be the most successful local example of the same movement). It started off as part of a “Local Economy Day” in the summer of 2008, and was formally launched a little over a year later, with 80 local businesses accepting the Brixton Pounds. Two years later, an electronic transfer form of the currency was set up and at present, over 250 businesses are using it.
“The Brixton Pound (B£) is money that sticks to Brixton. It’s designed to support Brixton businesses and encourage local trade and production,” reads the currency’s description of itself. “It’s a complementary currency, working alongside (not replacing) pounds sterling, for use by independent local shops and traders; it gives local traders and customers the chance to get together to support each other and maintain the diversity of the high street and strengthen pride in Brixton. It stays in Brixton and circulates, increasing local trade and community connections…. The B£ encourages people to think about where their money is going and commit to spending a proportion of it locally.”
Physically, the Brixton Pounds come in B£1, B£5, B£10 and B£20 paper bills, with their fronts representing famous Brixton residents voted on by the people of Brixton, and celebrating the community’s rich, diversity-empowered history, art, politics and culture. A first run had likenesses of a black community activist, environmentalist James Lovelock, anti-colonialist author C.L.R. James, and one-time resident Vincent Van Gogh, who said his years there changed his life. The most recent notes feature pro basketball player Luol Deng, who learned to play his sport in Brixton after immigrating from Sudan; a World War II woman spy who lived in the community; Len Kwesi Garrison, an academic and activist known for helping form modern Black British identity, and pop icon David Bowie, who spent his first six years in Brixton (and last ten in the Hudson Valley). The backs are locally designed, and incorporate Brixton sites, including its vibrant street art, a famous local skatepark, and historic public housing units.
Businesses using Brixton Pounds pay a 1.5 percent transaction fee, paid into the Brixton Fund, a micro-grant scheme for Brixton causes and initiatives. And the money can be changed back into “real” pounds…with the caveat that, “Changing back to sterling increases the amount of money that will leak out of the Brixton area.”
Looking on their website just before this story’s publication, we found 52 restaurants taking the currency; 13 pubs, clubs and bars; 9 grocers and delis; 13 clothing shops; 6 bakers; 5 butchers; and piles of services and other businesses, including a news shop.
“There’s countless (well, we got bored counting after the first hundred) places to spend Brixton Pounds, and issuing points where you can change your sterling into money that sticks to Brixton,” adds their much-visited website and app. “We are adding more all the time and many of these businesses have special offers exclusive to B£ spenders!”
In addition, funds from the Brixton Fund have helped start a newer Brixton Exchange, where others can go for fundraising help, social service needs, and services available on a pure barter system, trading your volunteer hours for other’s professional volunteer hours. There’s even a new Brixton Pound cafe that opened last summer, where all food and drink is served on a pay-what-you-feel basis—working with local surplus that would otherwise be wasted, and all profits again going into that burgeoning Brixton Fund. They’ve recently opened their own cash machines.
Downsides? Some worry that the Brixton Pound still supports gentrifiers more than the immigrant population that made the area so appealingly diverse in the first place. And that in doing so, it unintentionally supports that newer problem of gentrification.
And yet the Brixton Pound’s founders and continuing organizers and supporters are aware of this, and continue to work to better all they’ve created. They realize—just as the organizers of our Hudson Valley Current do—that a local currency creates resilience in the face of national economic fluctuations. When a national economy takes a dip, local currencies thrive.