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NewStart Feature: can community currencies tackle inequality?

Photo courtesy of Bristol Pound

The image of Eastbourne is changing. From ice creams on the beach, Punch & Judy and faded Victorian hotels, it’s now one of the fastest growing towns in the UK with a burgeoning creative industry home to almost 1000 independent businesses, many of which have been set up by young people priced out of London and nearby Brighton.

A new community currency is due to be launched in the town called Bourn Coin, and its creators hope to capitalise on the creative boon in the town as well as attempting to tackle the inequality and poverty that besets so many seaside towns in the UK.

The concept behind a community currency is nothing new. Create a medium of exchange that can be distributed and spent locally, which keeps money circulating within a geographical location and away from the pockets of shareholders of large corporations or bankers. In a climate where localism is thriving, it’s become an increasingly attractive proposition to communities from Liverpool to Lewes.

The Bourne identity

Like most community currencies, Bourn Coin is backed with pound sterling. It’s currently in its trial stage, with 10 local businesses and 100 individuals signed up. When you register you are gifted 50 free Bourn Coins, which you are free to spend on businesses in the town including a barbershop and a tearoom, but they are thinking bigger.

‘Under the present monetary system local communities have very little control,’ says Andrew Durling, co-creator of Bourn Coin. ‘My vision is that it doesn’t act as a standalone new form of currency, but it becomes the centrepiece of a new monetary system locally,’ he says.

‘Businesses and community groups can raise finance in a way that’s totally local without involving any multinational banks. It’s pier-to-pier and localised.’

For all the talk of a creative resurgence in Eastbourne, a 2016 report revealed levels of deprivation in the town are the third highest in Sussex. Mr Durling believes that money has leaked out of communities because of big corporations or retail chains sucking profits out of the area, which has increased inequality in seaside towns like Eastbourne.

‘You have the problem of increasing poverty and deprivation. Universal credit has reached Eastbourne and people are running out of cash for six weeks until they get their first payment. Queues at food banks are increasing.’

They want to give charities and community groups the power to issue BourneCoin, so when people visit a food bank they get something else that gives them a bit of spending power.

They also believe the currency can offer environmental benefits. Following busy summer weekends the beachfront at Eastbourne is regularly covered with trash and waste, and Mr Durling hopes that Bourn Coin can encourage people to keep it clean by giving people Bourn Coins for participating in beach cleans.

‘The monetary system must function in a more socially and ecologically responsible way. We get a terrible amount of plastic waste,’ I want it to incentivise people to do ecological things.’

Bristol Pound

Bristol Pound launched in 2012 and has gone to be one of the best known and most successful community currencies in the UK. You can spend Bristol Pound at over 800 businesses in the city, you can pay your council tax with it, and famously the former mayor had his salary paid in the currency.

Six years is a long time in tech, and they’ve had to adapt to survive as the larger banks have incorporated technology into their customer’s banking experience.

‘When we started, the payment platform was an SMS based,’ says Green Party councillor and Bristol Pound co-founder Stephen Clarke.

‘When you bought something with Bristol Pound, a text was sent to a credit union who handled the banking, and they transferred money from one account to another. At the time that was cutting edge, but the banks have overtaken us. So in the last 18 months, we’ve developed a payment system through an app.’

Bristol Pound might be known as one of the big beasts in the community currency world but they have regularly punched above their weight in terms of manpower and finances. It’s still a surprise to people when they find out how small their operation is.

‘We have a worldwide reach. We’ve had people in from Japan, South Korea and Mexico and they all think we’re this huge organisation but its half a dozen people working part-time with one or two full-time staff members. It’s been hard. The big banks are putting millions into this stuff and we don’t have that,’ says Mr Clarke.

Bristol Pound has helped to boost tourism too, claims Mr Clarke. Unlike Bourn Coin, Bristol Pound has a physical version, with colourful paper notes that feature local figures such as Isambard Kingdom Brunel and civil rights campaigner Paul Stephenson.

‘We’ve done a tourist map which you see lots of tourists walking around Bristol with. The way we sold it was you can discover the quirky independent businesses in Bristol through the Bristol pound. Also, tourists often just want to buy the cash and take it away with them as souvenirs.

Bristol has regularly been painted as a tale of two cities and the trendy, hipster bubble of Clifton is regularly set against the poverty and social deprivation of Hartcliffe or St Paul’s. Writing for New Start in 2015, the soon to be mayor, Marvin Rees, spoke out against the ‘social ills’ of gentrification that leave ‘some powerless in the face of the power of others, the further exclusion of the economically marginalised from economic opportunity, and underpins growing racial and class segregation.’

It’s been one of the challenges of Bristol Pound. It’s an easier sell getting latte supping Clifton dwellers on board than people living on one of Bristol’s many estates. They admit there is still work to be done.

‘Initially, we concentrated on the easier areas. It’s only in the last couple of years we’ve looked to go beyond these areas,’ he says.

‘Ideally, we would have done this from the start.’

‘There will be areas where independent businesses cluster. The areas of deprivation are the harder areas because there aren’t many local independent businesses left.  There are parts of the city where’s there are huge swathes where there are no independent businesses at all. They tend to be Lidl’s and Aldi’s and not much else. So, we’ve had to think of lateral ways of getting around that.’

They set up a scheme where neighbours can come together and buy produce directly from farms and growers using Bristol Pound. It’s been a way for them to get those harder to reach areas. ‘It’s not easy, but it’s been quite successful.’

With Brexit on the horizon and its impact unknown, there may be a need for greater localisation of finance. Whether they can move out of the coffee shops and craft ale pubs and into traditionally working class areas still remains to be seen, but Andrew Durling of Bourn Coin remains hopeful.

‘It’s about increasing the resilience and sustainability of the local community. It’s about taking back control. This only means something if people can take back control over the things that matter in their lives.’

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