The rise of the Brixton Pound, an alternative currency in south London, has shown how communities can take money creation into their own hands.
Whether you want on-the-spot bike surgery at Brixton Cycles co-op, a bowl of spiced bean stew at Zoe’s Ghana Kitchen, or a handmade necklace from design shop The Turpentine, these independent traders are among more than 300 local enterprises currently accepting the Brixton Pound.
Known for its vibrant counter-cultural heritage, Brixton first began issuing its own currency in 2009. Instead of using the familiar establishment icons, Brixton Pound notes depict portraits of prominent local figures. One pound notes feature Len Garrison, a black rights historian, while tenners show David Bowie dressed as Ziggy Stardust.
It’s no coincidence that the Brixton Pound was invented during the uncertainty of the global financial crisis. “We wanted to suggest an alternative to going about business as usual,” says Tom Shakhli, who oversees development of the currency in his role as general manager of the Brixton Pound. “Local communities and small businesses were suffering because of something that had nothing to do with them.”
With public trust in the regulated banking system at an all time low, a demand for shock-proof currencies rose to the fore — from Bitcoins to BerkShares, Lewes Pounds to Greek TEMs. The Brixton Pound is part of a wider movement to rethink the idea of ‘official’ money as the only reliable store of value and medium of exchange. Yet it’s also about keeping Brixton unique. “The idea was to encourage more sustainable economies, but also just to do something creative. Something that had community pride built into it,” says Shakhli.
The Brixton Pound’s slogan, ‘money that sticks to Brixton’, sums up this ethos of local resilience and independent spirit. But the currency is about more than just celebrating Brixton’s community and heritage. By spending with the Brixton Pound, customers are also actively investing in the preservation of small businesses threatened by online shopping and rising rents.
According to a study by the New Economics Foundation, money spent with independent businesses circulates within the local economy up to three times longer than payments to national chains. Localised supply chains are also growing more popular in Brixton thanks to its independent currency – a trend well-demonstrated by the Brixton Pound Cafe, which sources its produce exclusively from local greengrocers.
Initially the currency circulated informally from hand to hand, exchange by exchange, giving the money a sense of exclusivity. Whether paying employees’ wages or purchasing office equipment from neighbourhood traders, local businesses embraced the Brixton pound, and the sense of community and identity it created. But as it’s become increasingly popular, Shakhli has had to find innovative ways of ensuring the currency is as convenient as it is iconic.
Since 2011, it’s been possible to spend the Brixton Pound by text message, and the team behind the currency has been quick to integrate contactless payment options too. Businesses are charged a fee of 1.5% on these digital transactions, with profits feeding into a community fund dedicated to boosting employment opportunities, exploring local sustainability solutions and challenging cases of social injustice. And in April, the world’s first local currency ATM was installed on Brixton’s Market Row.
Despite the benefits of having around £150,000 worth of neighborhood currency in circulation, the Brixton Pound can’t match national currency when it comes to convenience – especially beyond Brixton town centre. Yet, for some advocates, this is one of its major plus points. “We like the idea of the transaction being a bit slower,” Shakhli explains. “It leads you to conversation and deliberation rather than more throwaway ways of consuming.”
While Shakhli accepts that alternative currencies won’t work everywhere, the Brixton Pound certainly offers a sense of community belonging not found at the self-service checkout machine. “There are certain ingredients you need for success: a small business community, and a local population who are ready and accepting,” he explains. “I’ve experimented with pretty much every sort of payment innovation going, but things don’t have to go all in one direction. We don’t have to forget the oldest ways of interacting with each other.”
Ultimately, the Brixton Pound goes some way to democratising where money comes from, where it goes, and who gets to create it. While financial markets fluctuate on an international scale, alternative currency initiatives have continued to spring up in the UK and beyond. The success of the Brixton Pound shows that communities can withstand global challenges through local action. Taking money into your own hands has never been a more attainable dream.
Johanna Hart is a freelance writer whose work has been published by Google, Facebook and Natwest.