For the latest in our series taking a closer look at Britain’s local currencies, we ventured to Sussex to find out if the Lewes Pound has been able to break out of the novelty and have an impact on the local economy.
The Lewes Pound began life in 2008 as part of the Transition Town Lewes initiative, a wider effort to create a low-carbon future in Lewes. The currency was inspired by the Totnes pound, the first in a wave of new local money schemes in Britain, and launched with three objectives – building a resilient local economy, minimising the carbon footprint through local supply chains, and strengthening the relationship between local shopkeepers and the community.
The first pound note was issued in September 2008, and 12 months later 30,000 Lewes pounds were in circulation. Over 150 local business owners accept Lewes Pounds, and there are six issuing points scattered around the town for locals to access LP notes.
To find how far the Lewes Pound has come in achieving its objectives, we spoke to Patrick Crawford, a director at Lewes Pound CIC, the organisation behind the currency.
“We had a pilot back in 2008 that was based on the New Economics Foundation’s ‘Leaky Bucket’ report,” Crawford told Business Advice.
“The report showed if you spend money locally, most of the money stays in the locality. Those shops use more local suppliers, producers and tradespeople than a supermarket, where most of the money goes out to shareholders and international suppliers,” he explained.
Crawford elaborated on the “grand idea” behind the Lewes Pound – if you use and support local businesses, then you support local supply chains. A local employer can expand their workforce by recruiting locally, and buying local produce cuts down the distance food travels. For Crawford, it’s about unearthing the social and environmental benefits from shopping locally.
From the start, the 100 Club was introduced as a way to keep residents interested and spending the pounds. Members agree to ask for change in Lewes Pounds, promote the initiative in the community and offer feedback to the Lewes Pound CIC. In exchange for supporting the currency, they receive special offers and deals at local businesses.
However, the pound’s feel-good eco factor drew criticism in its first year for failing to address the needs of lower socio-economic groups in the town.
Crawford accepted the currency’s close association with the local farmers’ markets and higher-end shops meant a risk of alienating the wider community from the initiative.
“That’s why we’re trying to build relationships with the local council and the credit union,” he added, explaining the efforts made to achieve stronger social links between the pound and residents.
“We are looking to introduce an electronic version of the Lewes Pound based on the Credit Union’s financial platform, once its own systems are ready. An electronic Lewes Pound will build connections with the 24 to 34 year-olds and support the wider community of Lewes.”
One criticism frequently put to local currency initiatives is a lack of lasting substance – an idea which would only become less relevant as the world moves towards a cashless society.
Research has suggested as many as six in ten 24 to 34 year-olds would prefer to shop without cash, and Liverpool’s digital wallet is one scheme that has looked to reassert itself as a digital-only offering in response to the transition.
Crawford acknowledged the rise of cashless shopping and the declining use of physical sterling. Introducing a new currency in these conditions is a significant challenge. Calculating the amount of Lewes pounds spent in real terms, he conceded, would require “extensive surveys and research”, but suggested measuring the spending of the currency itself would fail to show the wider benefit.
“Most people when they spend money now use cards, but you have to have a paper version to establish yourself as a reality. People will hear about the Lewes Pound and that may encourage them to shop locally, even if they pay by card.
“If you measure the effectiveness of the Lewes Pound by the amount of pounds used, it’s only a fraction of the impact on local spending.”
What the people say
To assess the town’s enthusiasm, the Lewes Pound CIC undertook a survey of participating business owners and residents, receiving 62 different kinds of responses. The findings started to uncover a number of tangible benefits to the Lewes Pound.
Respondents frequently cited increased demand for local goods and services, as well as its ability to raise awareness of the town’s traders. Respondents believed the currency shone a spotlight on the town that encouraged people from outside Lewes to visit. According to one business owner: “It celebrates Lewes and attracts visitors to the town. Its fun.”
Even at its launch, the Lewes Pound generated significant international interest. In a recent interview, Michael Chartier, former Mayor of Lewes, told a local journalist he was requested interviews from “as far afield as Russia, India and America” back in 2008.
After nine years in circulation, the Lewes Pound has established itself as a part of the town’s local identity, though not quite to the extent of the infamous bonfire nights. Figures from the local council show the economic value of tourism to Lewes to have grown three per cent each year since 2015.
As proof of its longevity, the Lewes Pound CIC sends out over 1,000 Lewes Pounds as part of a monthly subscription service.
Purchasing physical notes as mementos has also been popular, and the organisation has donated £6,500 to local charities from the profits. A limited edition Mumford and Sons note was produced when the band played a local festival in 2013, while a fifth collectors pack is due out soon.
Crawford and his colleagues have capitalised on the interest and novelty surrounding the pound, without needing to depend on growing use and circulation of the paper tender itself.
In a “how-to” document published in the pound’s first year, the Lewes Pound CIC attempted to draw conclusions on the currency’s future. It has certainly raised the profile of local traders, but Lewes remains a way off becoming fully self-sufficient.
As pointed out by Crawford, a physical local currency is unlikely to ever challenge sterling in any locality, and competing against ever convenient payment methods makes the task increasingly difficult.
But, the Lewes Pound has shown that in raising the profile of local businesses and generating intrigue in what the town has to offer, measuring its value in hard economic terms would fail to tell the whole story.
Find out what Britain’s other local currencies have to offer:
- Powering the Liverpool Pound – An inside look at Britain’s latest local currency
- Brixton Pound – The local currency with its own cash machine
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