Text by Toby Skinner Photos/Tim E White
With it's shiny, psychedelic new five-pound note, designed by Turner Prize-winning artist Jeremy Deller, the Brixton Pound doesn’t look like any normal currency – which makes sense, because it’s not.
The Brixton Pound is one of a growing number of alternative currencies around the world, particularly in the UK, which can only be spent in local-owned businesses. There are local currencies in small towns like Totnes, Devon, and Stroud, Gloucestershire, but when the Brixton Pound started in the south London district in 2009 it was the first in a large city. There’s now a Bristol Pound, a brand-new Exeter Pound and plans for alternative currencies from Manchester to Hackney, east London.
“The Brixton Pound was started by local people after the financial crisis,” says communications manager Marta Owczarek. “It was about supporting local businesses, but also about asking bigger questions: what is money? Why is it only the Bank of England that can issue notes? Brixton as an area has always had that spirit of activism and asking questions, so it made sense here.”
Local currencies are also part of the Transition Towns movement, which started in hippy-ish Totnes in 2006, with the aim to promote buying local in response to climate destruction and big finance. The movement has now spread worldwide, but Brixton was the first inner-city area to name itself a Transition Town.
To use Brixton Pounds you either exchange normal money for Brixton notes, which have had local luminaries from David Bowie to basketball player Luol Deng on them, or – as is more common – pay by mobile, either by text or through the Brixton Pound app. The few hundred businesses that accept Brixton Pounds pay a 1.5 per cent charge (cheaper than traditional card payments), which goes into the Brixton Fund, a micro-grants scheme for local projects. They’ve also started the Brixton Bonus, the world’s first lottery of its kind, in which winners win B£1,000.
So is everyone using it? Not exactly, despite Owczarek playing up the “few thousand” users. On a Saturday morning at the wonderful Brixton Village Market – a renovated old market building packed with little curiosity shops and great restaurants from around the world – business owners are generally supportive of the scheme but not overwhelmed by customers using it.
At Brixi, which was recently voted London’s best knick-knack shop, charming owner Emi Gray says: “We sell Brixton pounds here, and we really support the idea behind it, but we’re not inundated with people using it. Especially with the notes, people tend to collect them more than use them – we still get people trying to find the David Bowie 10-pound note.”
It’s a similar story at Brixton Cornercopia, a popular locavore restaurant, deli and kitchenware shop. Chef Ian Riley and owner Anne Fairbrother concede that usage hasn’t been what they’d like – “Some people’s response to it has been disappointingly negative”, says Riley – but Fairbrother, who was involved as a director in the Brixton Pound’s early stages, maintains it’s been a success. “We’ve had an amazing number of journalists here – from the BBC to al-Jazeera – and countless students doing theses. It’s helped to really spread the message about buying local and supporting local businesses.”
Certainly, despite gentrification, Brixton has managed to hold onto its unique identity better than many parts of London, winning the UK’s nationwide Great Neighbourhood Award in 2013. From the halal butchers of Electric Avenue to the Caribbean restaurants on Coldharbour Lane, it still feels like a gloriously buzzing community, where small, multi-ethnic businesses have kept the big chains at bay. If the Brixton Pound helps keep it that way, it’s done a service.
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