In Towns and villages all over the country a bag of vegetables might be traded for a night’s baby-sitting. It is this currency of cooperation and community that has inspired the rapid development of the LETS schemes. Lorna Russell takes a look at the system of barter that bypasses the bank to promote creative exchange.
Squall 10, Summer 1995, pg. 48.
Going down the shop to buy a pound of bananas or a bottle of shampoo should not have to involve wasted minutes of label-reading, soul-searching and shop-owner interrogation. But if you don’t want to give up completely, there’s always the option of joining a quiet, economic revolution.
The recent explosion of Lets (Local exchange trading systems) allows you to know whose pockets you’re filling, as well as helping the local economy, making a short cash supply stretch further and allowing skills to be used and things to be bought that otherwise wouldn’t.
The first British system calling itself a Lets scheme was set up in Norwich in 1985. By 1990 there were two or three going. There are now about 350, so nearly everyone should have access to a scheme. Sixteen European countries now have similar systems, and things are stirring in parts of Africa, Japan, India and Brazil. Liz Shephard is co-ordinator of Lets-link UK, which gives people information about the schemes, organises national events and publishes a national magazine, Lets-link! (£2.25 or £1.75 plus 50 pence worth of your local currency). She believes the burgeoning interest is due to the fact that Lets can bring you an immediate and practical result.
Jilly Clarke, from North London, has been unemployed for two years and is a member of two Lets schemes in her area. She’s so excited about what they’ve done for her and what they’ve enabled her to do for other people that she’s about to join two more. “I’ve now got access to a whole range of services that I didn’t have before. My flat was totally dilapidated and now it’s being repaired and painted and renovated, and I’ve finally got a washing machine. They’re also teaching me as they go along, so next time I can do some myself. I had to pay for the materials in sterling but I negotiated to get all the labour done on Lets on the basis that they would do the work whenever they had time.” Jilly’s background is in mental health so she’s now offering counselling on a part-Lets basis. She’s also returned to her old skill of massage. “I never felt comfortable charging sterling when I worked privately because so few people could afford that sort of money. But now I can do it on Lets and feel I’m contributing to the local community.”
Liz Shephard guesstimates that nearly a quarter of the people involved in Lets are unemployed; Jilly reckons that it’s over half in her schemes. Letsystems can provide something for everyone but are especially valuable for people who live on benefits. Not only is there access to previously unimaginable goods and services, but members also get to feel like they belong to the community. Cathy Morris, a member of the Manchester Letsystem, has been unemployed for 15 years. With children of 16 and 13 she had always been far too broke to get the house and garden sorted out. She joined her local Letsystem two years ago and has now had a chicken hut built so she can sell her own eggs, had fencing put up in the back garden, loads of shelves built, acupuncture for a bad back, and the front garden changed from a mass of rotting rose bushes to a “cottage garden”. “When you’re living on benefits,” says Cathy, “you feel like you’re living on the fringes of society. But now I’ve got goods and services that I normally couldn’t have. In return I do office work for Lets, bake cakes to order and sell batches of vegetarian food. It makes you feel like you can actually participate.”
However, there is still a long way to go. If Letsystems are going to bypass the need for “real” money they have to be capable of providing the basics of life. At the moment it’s nowhere near possible to live entirely on Lets and some members don’t feel it ever will be. For instance, it’s highly unlikely that British Gas are going to offer you the option of paying your quarterly bill on Lets.
Food is another vital area where progress seems to be slow, although there are encouraging signs. Lets would be the perfect system for getting healthy, affordable food to people, while simultaneously bypassing the retail giants.
In the UK about half of the food retail market is controlled by just five companies, and the food on offer tends to be over-processed, over-packaged, and produced with little regard for animals and the environment. Getting food on Lets would mean we were much more aware of where our meal had come from and this would enable us to make more informed choices.
It would give people the power to influence the production of that food, hopefully creating a better market for organic growers. Fewer people would use cars to get to out of town super stores. And by increasing the tendency to eat locally produced food, the excessive global trading which allows rich countries to import all the benefits while exporting all the costs to poorer countries would be reduced.
On most Letsystems this remains little more than an utopian vision. London’s Hackney and Brixton both have thriving Lets schemes but neither can offer much in the way of food. The Cooltan Arts Centre’s cafe in Brixton is the only eating out venue on their system, while Hackney has the Green Door cafe plus Hackney Wholefoods who offer 10 per cent of your purchase on Lets. Canterbury Wholefoods, in Kent, operate a similar scheme.
Things are looking more promising in Telford, Shropshire, where distributors for a local Green Growers co-op will go into town with £5 bags of seasonal vegetables that can be paid for on Lets. Mandy Winkworth, joint co-ordinator of Lets Eat!, says that here she can get good organic vegetables at a reasonable price through her local Lets scheme. Although she recognises that no Letsystem can provide people’s basic needs as yet, she is optimistic about the future of Lets: “It’s the most powerful social economic development of our time. Once it can satisfy basic needs like food and shelter it will increase awareness. And once people start voting with their wallets the producers won’t know where to turn!”
Les Moore, of Lets Go London, points to a practical problem of traders charging entirely in local currency: the VAT collector. If a trader is registered for VAT they have to pay 17.5 per cent of the money they make in cash. So until the Inland Revenue start taking Lets, registered traders will only be able to offer goods on Lets on a small scale.
Housing is another area in which Lets are beginning to make in-roads. Letslink have recently noticed an increased interest from housing co-ops, some of which are having a percentage of their building work done on Lets. Siobhan Harpur, co-ordinator of Manchester’s Lets Solutions, who are constantly keeping dialogue open with people in housing, economic development and local government, believes that, “if people can meet their basic needs through Lets there is a real possibility of alleviating poverty”. A housing co-op in Manchester is currently building new residential accommodation to be ready for the autumn, with the intention that 10 per cent of the rent will be payable on Lets. This money will go back into the maintenance and up-keep of the buildings. Lets Solutions are also planning to revitalise the run-down local community centre using local tradespeople to do the repairs and then hiring out the centre on a part-Lets basis.
Manchester Lets is generally looking like it’s leading the way. In Moss Side, where unemployment among 19-25 year-olds is reaching 90 per cent, they are working with a black business network to build up black enterprise. “This way,” says Siobhan, “some of the ‘money’ stays local, enabling the community to revitalise their economy. They can hold on to the possibility of sustainability; money flowing locally keeps trade going locally.” Altogether, there are 85 businesses in Manchester who will do part of their trading through Lets, including solicitors, a taxi firm and a garden centre. Siobhan says they are also hoping to establish a shared work centre, perhaps with a small businesses start-up scheme which would enable people to begin their own business without building up massive debts.
The biggest growth area in Lets is health. Probably due to their background in alternative perspectives, holistic health practitioners all over the country are involved in schemes. Considering that low- waged people have problems paying prescription charges, let alone £30 an hour for acupuncture or homeopathy, this is an area where Lets can provide a practical service; and one that is generally a lot better than your GP nodding incessantly and then scribbling something unintelligible on a piece of paper. John Rhodes, Letslink’s spokesperson on a Lets health service, says that his aim is to instigate a complete health service within Lets. He believes that nearly all illnesses can be cured holistically, without recourse to the NHS, as long as they’re caught early enough. “We’re some of the way there in Stroud,” says John, “15 practitioners have said they will charge people 50 per cent Lets. There’s no reason why someone who’s ill shouldn’t go 3,000 ‘strouds’ into debt to get cured; after that they’ll be in a position to do things for other people on Lets.”
Whether or not Lets schemes will ever allow an entirely local, ethically-sound economy to operate, they are undoubtedly capable of increasing the quality of life.
Simon Lukes, a member of Hackney Lets, points out that it also means people can stop their skills getting rusty: “People who have worked all their lives are often unable to cope with being made unemployed. If they’ve been an electrician for 30 years and they suddenly find themselves out of work they’re unlikely to ever get that status back. Lets can offer them an alternative outlook; something else in their lives.”
Simon became unemployed himself just after joining his local Lets and he found it gave him a support system to fall back on. He does electronic repairs, mends bicycles and helps with the administration for the local Lets directory, and has used the system to buy tools, have his flat sat while he was away, and buy wholefoods. But most importantly for him, when he went to a recent job interview he didn’t feel like it was a make or break situation: “It was my first interview for ten years but having kept up my skills on Lets was a tremendous confidence booster. And because I had something else in my life with the Lets scheme, it wasn’t like there was this big abyss that I was going to fall into if I didn’t get the job.” He got the job.
You’d think that such tales would be enough to make the Government believe that Lets is a good thing. But they may decide that trading on Lets counts as earning money and should therefore be deducted from the dole. The DSS are currently dealing with it as and when it appears and it seems to be down to the local benefit office’s discretion as to whether they see it as money or not. Those Lets schemes that actually call it local money are more likely to run into problems. No-one has had money deducted yet but one women was told that she would lose benefit unless she left the system. The best bet seems to be to tread warily and if in doubt use a false name for trading. (Names in this article have been changed just in case.)
The hope is that the British Government will follow Australia’s example where Lets earnings are exempted for people on benefit. As long as we all understand that there’s nothing more revolutionary going on than a cheap deal on acupuncture, they might just come to the right decision.
Contact Letslink on: 01985 217 871