For the latest in a regular Business Advice series on Britain’s local currencies, we take a look at the Brixton Pound, the country’s first inner-city tender.
Last week we took an inside look at Liverpool’s new digital wallet, and later in the series we’ll venture to Sussex to find out how independent traders in Lewes have responded to the town’s local currency.
Now, we speak to local business owners in Brixton as well as a founding director of the initiative to find out how the Brixton Pound seeks to consolidate the town’s proudly independent identity into a model that benefits the wider local economy.
Launched as a physical currency in September 2009, the pound’s tagline is “money that sticks to Brixton”. Like all other local currencies, the idea behind Brixton’s tender is to boost spending with independent businesses and encourage people to look more close to home when deciding where to shop.
According to Zac Monro, a local architect and one of the initiative’s founding directors, the initial idea was in response to the impact of the 2008 financial crash on independent business owners and the communities they serve.
“Everyone was very aware that their local economy seemed to be very dependent on big, global organisations. Suddenly, all sorts of small shops had to shut down because somebody a long way away invested in the wrong thing,” he told Business Advice.
“It’s the idea of helping a local economy become more resilient to the whims of the market.” With this in mind, Monro explained the intention was to build a local economy that could be sustainable.
“But sustainable in a robust way. If there’s a local economy that works well within itself, with a strong supply chain that works internally, then it becomes less dependent on, basically, gambling and speculation.”
But how can we consider the concept of a localised economy in practice? Monro, whose firm accepts the Brixton Pound, added further detail to how it can support sustainable supply chain links.
“I would find myself going to buy coffee, and one shop wouldn’t take it and I wouldn’t go there anymore. Then, I’d discover coffee shops that would take it. That’s an example of how it strengthens the local supply chain,” he said.
Reinforcing the local identity
For Maggie Zimmerman, who has spent almost a decade at Brixton Cycles, a workers’ co-operative founded in 1983 after the Brixton riots, a resilient local economy is central to the identity of the area.
“I don’t know if you can just quantify the impact in hard economic terms,” conceded Zimmerman.
“It goes deeper than that. The reason our customers come to us is because we aren’t a corporate chain. We’re their friends and their neighbours and they know they’ll get better service because they aren’t being treated like cogs in a wheel.
“Part of what made Brixton what it is are the local businesses that have shaped the public face of the neighbourhood over the decades,” she added.
Figures from the Local Data Company revealed that 15 high streets stores closed every day in the first half of 2016, and small independent businesses have been among those most vulnerable with the emergence of ultra-convenient online shopping and rising rents, particularly in an area like Brixton that has seen vast regeneration in recent years.
The visible “independence” of the high street is a concern for business owners across the country, and something local currencies have been introduced to fight for.
“There is a massive pressure for high streets across the world to look the same, and we’re not immune to that in Brixton,” said Monro.
Zimmerman agreed that economic pressures were an ever-present threat to local business, and said the Brixton Pound acted as a necessary tool for owners battling against larger competition.
“The economic situation and demographic of Brixton is changing. At the moment, there are large conglomerates starting to move in, so I feel the Brixton Pound is helping the community retain its identity – a unique place with its own diverse culture.
“The Brixton Pound is the stick around which everything crystallises. It’s the rallying cry of the whole neighbourhood ethos. It’s the physical – and now virtual – manifestation of the community spirit.”
As with other local currencies, owners can pay business rates and BID levies with the Brixton Pound. The organisation behind the currency has made a range of efforts to support local business owners, including free advertising in local papers and listings on the mobile app.
“I have nothing but good things to say about the Brixton Pound,” said Adrian Turle, owner of a Blue Turtle Oasis, an independent café that accepts the local currency.
Blue Turtle Oasis occupies a position just outside of Brixton, in neighbouring Loughborough Junction. Turle said the initiative had conveyed some of Brixton’s local identity into his own business.
“It’s done a great thing for the community,” Turle added, “they’ve promoted local businesses for free”.
A future in a cashless society?
Following Liverpool’s new digital-only pound, a case could be made that physical local currencies are on the way out.
Although it went digital in 2011, the Brixton Pound received a cash machine in April 2016, the first of its kind in the world. Monro was keen to stress the continued importance of hard cash.
“The physical notes are extraordinary and have a value in themselves rather than just monetary. The cash machine is great,” he said.
The notes – available in denominations of B£1, B£5, B£10 and B£20 – feature faces such as Brixton-born David Bowie and former resident Vincent Van Gough and have become somewhat of a collector’s item.
“The hard currency completely changes the exchange. With a small local trader, you talk a lot more. You take time, converse, it does strengthen those supply chain links,” Monro added.
Over 250 local business owners are currently accepting the tender, and the excitement surrounding the new cash machine appears to have mobilised a new generation of users.
After 11 years in circulation, can it be said the pound really sticks to Brixton?
A 1.5 per cent transaction fee from every sale is put back into local initiatives by the non-profit Brixton Pound group, through its Brixton Fund. The organisation has put money into local employment opportunities and supported entrepreneurship among young people in the community.
A “start your own food business” workshop supported the foundation of the Brixton Brewery and Seven at Brixton tapas and cocktail bar. In 2016, the micro-grants fund put £10,000 into community business projects and social enterprises.
Brixton’s small business owners are among those most threatened by business rates revaluation
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