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Barter economy

By Jack Izzard
Today programme

It has been a bad week for sterling - at one point the pound dropped to its lowest level against the dollar for 23 years.

Its drastic decline has even prompted some City analysts to hint at of a crisis of confidence in our currency.

Lewes currency
Lewes first printed its own notes in the 18th Century
But is there an alternative to our beleaguered pound?

Well, yes. Small bartering collectives have been set up across the UK.

The internet offers people the chance to experiment with other forms of currency - 40,000 Britons are part of local exchange trading schemes or Lets - where members swap goods and services.

Mary Fee, from LetsLink UK, says the popularity of such schemes has surged.

"When economies collapse, people will inevitably turn to barter," she explains. "This is what happened when the Soviet Union collapsed, this is what happened in Argentina.

"I'm sorry to say I think we're going to see hard times in the UK. People will be down to what can I do, what can I grow, what can I work out with my neighbours."

Some towns are thinking of printing their own money. Totnes followed the example of the BerkShares - a currency adopted by towns in western Massachusetts in the United States, to support locally owned businesses over national chains - by creating its own currency.

It is not legal tender, but works in much the same way. In the town of Lewes in East Sussex, for example, the local banknotes have become part of everyday life.

More than 70 local traders initially agreed to accept the Lewes pound - and now there are over 130 traders using it - as a complementary currency to sterling. There are 31,000 of the Lewes pound notes in circulation.

The paper, real money paper, absorbs much of the cost of the production. In fact, it is not the first time Lewes has attempted the experiment: the town had its own currency between 1789 and 1895.

So what does the town think of the experiment?

Bill Collison, owner of Bill's Produce Store

Bill Collison
I really do believe in the Lewes pound. I think the notes are beautiful - and they make people more aware of their local community.

Lewes is a bit like an island and we're really proud of it.

There were a lot of sceptics at the start, but most have now been won over. The Lewes Pound has really put the town on the map, even if it's hard to say how much extra business it has generated. But even if it brings in only ten extra customers a day, that's still ten worth having.

Susan May, owner of May's General Store

Susan May
It has done what it's supposed to - encourage customer loyalty and keep local people shopping locally.

I really get the feeling that people here support it and want to see it work. We see a steady flow of Lewes pounds through our till - sometimes as much as 10% of our takings are in them.

We always offer customers Lewes pounds in their change. Of course some say no, and prefer to have English pounds - but many say yes. Of course people can swap their Lewes Pounds for sterling anytime they want. But many like to hang on to some for buying bits and bobs around town. I certainly do and spend around £40 a week this way.

David, travelling busker

David the busker
I'm not from Lewes and only found out about the local money when someone dropped a Lewes pound in my hat. At first I thought it was a joke, but when I heard it was real money, I was much happier.

I haven't spent it - just kept it. I don't know why really. It's a nice souvenir I suppose. It certainly wouldn't buy me much round here. Maybe I'm hoping someone will offer me two quid for it one day…

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The currency is designed to boost trade by encouraging local people to spend their money in the town




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