by Nikos Ntounis and James Scott Vandeventer
Alternative currencies have been around for many years, to the point that they can be seen as a rather old technology for dealing with societal, economic, and developmental changes. Indeed, the first forms of alternative currencies were presented during the cash-poor interwar era in Europe and the US as an attempt to incentivise spending, discourage saving, and keep local economies afloat in a time of severe unemployment, poverty, and uncertainty (NEF, 2015). Fast forward almost 90 years, and similar issues pertain to the vast majority of our cities and towns, not only in the UK, but around the world. Unsurprisingly, alternative currencies are on the rise in various forms: timebanks, time-credit systems, local exchange trading systems, complementary currencies, convertible local currencies that are backed by the national currency, etc. More recently, cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin have risen to prominence and gained immense political and monetary value as decentralised transactional networks that injected a huge influx of money into a new marketplace that was ready to dismiss the old system of fiat money (Matchett, 2017).
CounterCoin, a new alternative currency developed by a team of economic and social development practitioners, while still in its infancy, is already helping people make a change to the town centre of Newcastle-under-Lyme. We were recently invited to a meeting in the “headquarters” of CounterCoin, the Cultural Squatters community café in York Place shopping centre, in order to join the team spearheading the creation of this new alternative currency.
The context: Newcastle-under-Lyme
The market town of Newcastle-under-Lyme (NuL) might seem an unlikely place for radically rethinking of the role currency in our lives. But in this market town, next to Stoke-on-Trent and part of North Staffordshire, an experiment is underway.
Similar to the larger and homonymous city upon the river Tyne, Newcastle-under-Lyme (NuL) and Staffordshire as a whole experienced large-scale industrial decline in the 20th century. While Newcastle-upon-Tyne has successfully transformed into a retail- and education-based service economy, a similar commitment to services in NuL has resulted to three shopping centres in a town with only 128,000 inhabitants (ONS, 2011). Faced with high turnover and unused retail space, the management of one of these shopping centres, York Place, recently agreed to a short-term lease for Cultural Squatters, a community café and social enterprise.
Our journey to NuL and Cultural Squatters began with a train ride to Stoke-on-Trent, as the NuL train station was shuttered in the 1960’s during the Beeching cuts. From Stoke, a bus took us through the surrounding semi-urban neighbourhoods to NuL town centre. A short walk through the historic old town and past one of the three shopping centres brought us to York Place, and to Cultural Squatters.
Cultural Squatters and CounterCoin
Cultural Squatters is a social enterprise that provides volunteers with learning difficulties, activity limitations, or other forms of disability with job training. Throughout its operations, a #bekind philosophy inspires how the café is run, from providing food and drink at affordable prices, to event and workshop space for local groups, to a radical inclusivity model. Additionally, Cultural Squatters hosts a weekly meeting of the team behind CounterCoin. This collaborative project recently received coverage in The Guardian, reflecting a growing interest in the kind of alternative practices CounterCoin and Cultural Squatters embody.
At Cultural Squatters, the CounterCoin alternative currency has found a hub for operating. The idea began in the late 2000’s, when a group of people endured the worst of the financial crisis and saw a chance to, in their words, ‘plug the gaps’ in the system. The CounterCoin model is simple: in exchange for each hour of volunteering, an individual receives five CounterCoins. Cultural Squatters is very much the hub of CounterCoin because, in addition to hosting the weekly meeting, it is a key generator of CounterCoin: volunteers at the café receive CounterCoin for their efforts.
Eventually, the CounterCoin team hopes for these coins to be exchanged for discounts in NuL town centre and the broader North Staffordshire area. A recent successful trial of this involved exchanging CounterCoins for a discount to a local bowling alley, with other plans underway. To this end, the team aims to recruit businesses with high fixed costs and off-peak capacity (such as shopping and leisure centres, cinemas, music venues, theatres, bowling alleys, cáfes and bars, sports and wellness centres, museums, and even transport operators). In this way, CounterCoins are a means of exchange for goods and services that might go to waste or are underutilised during off-peak times. Thus, the incentive driving CounterCoin is capacity optimisation: using CounterCoins will allow people to purchase goods and services at a discounted rate, and will help businesses to earn some extra profit (CounterCoin, 2018). Today, the group involved has expanded and CounterCoin has matured to the point that coins are being made and distributed to volunteers.
We arrived at the café and received a brief tour of the café and explanation of its role as a social enterprise. Then, we participated in the meeting of weekly CounterCoin meeting, with four core members in attendance. The topics of discussion varied considerably, from explaining how the alternative currency will circulate and possible ways for engaging with retailers as participants, to upcoming actions for the project and ways to make it financially
viable while adhering to its social mission. Midway through the meeting, a senior officer at NuL council arrived and joined the meeting. He expressed the council’s enthusiastic support for the project and explained ways council facility could incorporate CounterCoin. Later, after the council officer left, the conversation turned to planning a fundraiser for another local social enterprise that is facing precarious financial situation, then to a big picture discussion about the future of the project and how its legal status can be scaled up. After a lunch that included the classic Staffordshire stew, known as ‘lobby’ – and made from vegetables grown down the road from Cultural Squatters – we said our goodbyes and left NuL infected with enthusiasm for CounterCoin and full of ideas about how this project might move forward. Having had time to reflect on the meeting, we have developed some initial thoughts about various elements of this radical experiment.
CounterCoin as an alternative currency
As a result of the affiliation with Cultural Squatters, CounterCoin is beginning to function as an amalgam of different alternative currencies. At this point, it mostly functions as a time-shared currency (one hour equals five CounterCoins no matter what type of volunteering), and as a local exchange trading scheme (LETS), mainly due to its function as a forum for place change, community building, and social inclusion. In other words, it can be seen as a “countercultural alternative space that operates under locally created economic rules” (North, 1999:71). At the same time, for the team of individuals involved in and affiliated with developing CounterCoin, there is a trust-based reporting system of involvement. The team operates on an understanding that ‘honesty is the best policy’ and, instead of fixed rules, relies on its members’ accountability and credibility to calculate exactly how many hours they have spent promoting, discussing, or even just thinking about ways to develop and recruit more people into the initiative. In this sense, no fixed rules exist for how much a member of the team must work toward the wider project. These contributions, along with the number of members, are updated weekly in a timeline graph on the currency’s website, which shows a steady increase in both hours contributed and members. Thus, the economic rules of involvement are not bounded to physical spaces where volunteering occurs, and instead are flexibly applied to the network of individuals involved, relying on the mutual trust among them, while also minimising the power relationship that is characteristic of a money economy (North, 1999).
More importantly though, CounterCoin seeks to tackle four key barriers to participation in place commons and everyday life, which were identified by the core team. These are: Cost, Transport, Support, and Accessibility. It can be argued that these barriers are commonplace in the majority of our town centres and high streets, and have also been identified as key priorities of town centre change in IPM’S High Street UK 2020 project (Parker et al. 2017). In short, these barriers are common for both businesses and citizens in an area. Consequently, CounterCoin aims to tackle these barriers for both groups, by creating trust and helping marginalised people to earn their own CounterCoins, which will give them access to a plethora of services in the town centre, owned by marginalised businesses who face similar problems such as high fixed costs, low footfall numbers, and minimal support from other bodies. Particularly for the NuL town centre, Countercoin’s potential strength is its ability to help the centre being more inclusive and busier for more hours during the day, thus positively influencing city centre’s activity hours and maximising the opportunities for people to visit and potentially spend money there (Parker et al, 2017). To this end, the team is working in parallel with the local council, and is in discussions with the local town BID, in order to identify the best way possible to introduce CounterCoin to as many businesses as possible. Furthermore, the team is closely involved with the North Staffordshire community voluntary sector, and has already planned several workshops for marginalised citizens in order to let them create and earn CounterCoins. These workshops function as placemaking interventions as well: the new CounterCoin will be made of clay, a direct reference to the local pottery industry, giving many people the opportunity to cherish and reminiscent the area’s past, and also to inject the identity of the place into the coin.
It appears that CounterCoin is seeking to act as a coordinating tool for people’s co-constructive value-adding exchanges within the vicinity of the town centre. This necessitates the development of a co-production approach that will ensure that diverse place stakeholder groups can design, organise, and deliver these value-adding exchanges from the bottom-up, in order to improve quality of life for people and communities (NEF, 2015). Consequently, CounterCoin can be viewed as a form of exchange that can strengthen citizens’ local organisation base by helping in the creation of more alternative spaces. These spaces facilitate placemaking and place interventions, and improve citizens’ negotiating position by providing the incentive for using the alternative transaction system in conjunction with the traditional money system.
In addition, CounterCoin is an alternative currency premised on the embrace of inclusive social values. The notion of “caringzen” that Lloveras et al. (2018) use in their description of a community in Seville seems to explain many of the bottom-up practices that the CounterCoin enacts on a daily basis. The idea of using an alternative currency as a vehicle and tool for including as many people as possible in placemaking and place development practices is of utmost importance for the CounterCoin team and crucial for the potential success of CounterCoin. In the short time since the launch of CounterCoin, the variety and success of small-scale projects and initiatives (i.e. the creation of Cultural Squatters), as well as the sheer amount of interest for participation and support from a breadth of people from different sectors (town council, BIDs, voluntary organisations, Universities) showcase what can be called a first attempt towards co-production of inclusive, place-related practices for the benefit of the community.
For the core team though, it is important that these practices will rely on trust-based relationships and will further advance local interactions nurtured by an ethics of care and responsibility. Beyond these ethics of care lies a bigger project though, one that seeks to locate “political space within patterns of social interaction” (Bradley, 2014:647) and to reconstruct the local scale within the community strategies of the council and other bodies. Therefore, further development of the CounterCoin project also requires the development of a new ethics of place (Massey, 2007:13), in order to examine the interdependencies between CounterCoin and York Place with other places, people and institutions that support and work for its development. Such an approach can help the CounterCoin team and its partners to better assess any injustices and inequalities that are engrained in the town (Mason and Whitehead, 2012), and to reconstitute public spaces such as York Place and the NuL town centre as domestic and familiar to the people who feel deprived to use them (Bradley, 2014).
Is CounterCoin dependent on NuL?
Still, the place-based nature CounterCoin is not immutable. Because Cultural Squatters has a short-term lease at York Place, they face a temporary and precarious situation in NuL. Yet, the CounterCoin team remains committed to developing it as an alternative currency, with contingency planning in the event of an eviction. It can be characterised as “a microtechnology that creates from below a network that operates by changed rules and changed power relations…[enabling]…a micro—rather than meta—resistance which creates, within the capitalist system and avoiding a head-on confrontation with it, Foucault’s ‘heterotopia’; a nongeographical, ephemeral, yet temporarily liberated virtual space.” (North, 1999:71, emphasis added). So, the place-dependence of CounterCoin on Cultural Squatters and NuL may be overcome through the commitment of actors to establish a temporarily liberated space. Indeed, discussions are ongoing about how to adapt CounterCoin to function as a digital alternative currency (with Tesco Clubcard being a commonly referenced template). Such a model is understood to be ‘virtual’ and applicable in other local contexts, so long as conditions are right, and sufficient generators (i.e. volunteer organisations) and redeemers (i.e. businesses) can be recruited. North’s deserves quoting further on this point: “Although this approach to LETS is in no way to be taken as a totalising claim that all participants in LETS see what they are doing in this light, it does illuminate a motivational force and strategy that emphasises on economic development or community empowerment occlude” (1999:71). So, the circumstances that have aligned for CounterCoin to emerge in NuL, while fortuitous, may not be the fundamental motivation for the alternative currency. Instead, witnessing the chronic economic decline and loss of a sense of community in places across England – and deciding to do something about it – appears to be the motivational drive behind CounterCoin.
Looking ahead: emerging networked locales?
The previous analysis aligns with the idea that social capital is context-driven and not necessarily and inevitably context-dependent (i.e. Naughton, 2014). While a geographical framing affords a conduit for both lay and academic understandings of how the everyday practices of actors succeed or fail, the spatial ties of the CounterCoin team extend beyond the particular locale of NuL. So far, this market town has been the site of co-production for CounterCoin: it is a collective endeavour in NuL, with people as a part of action not its object (Friedmann, 2005). Still, the potentiality and enthusiasm for nurturing this project in other places, and for developing ways of sharing experience and knowledge with other places, may suggest a new model: ‘networked locales’ – local nodes of practice (praxis) interconnected through a network of knowledge transfer and driven by shared goals.
While there is enthusiasm and a real drive for change behind CounterCoin, what the future holds, and whether a networked locales model will develop, remains to be seen. The evolving and expanding group of stakeholders involved in CounterCoin – a group of which we now consider ourselves a part – remains committed to making this alternative currency into an engine for reversing high street decline and sparking inclusive local engagement.
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